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Los Alamos fire could become the largest in New Mexico history

Big fires have happened before in New Mexico, but scientists see a recent pattern that may be the most severe since the last Ice Age. Among the causes: fuel buildup due to fire suppression, a decline in the annual snowpack, and warmer climate.

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A long-term average decline in annual snow pack, which provides the bulk of the region's water, along with rising average temperatures have lengthened the fire season and dried out the fuel.

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New Mexico, along with much of Texas (which has had a record fire season), and the southeastern US is in the throes of extreme to exceptional drought conditions, according to data published jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, and the University of Nebraska.

The Wallow fire in Arizona, which has consumed more than half a million acres and is some 93 percent contained, and the Los Conchas fire, are "an indication of what kind of fire season this has been," says Jerome McDonald of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, an interagency task force overseeing the firefighting efforts.

"Our team was on the Wallow fire as well," he continues. "As firefighters we're seeing extreme fire behavior and the kind of [fire] growth we haven't seen in our careers."

The Las Conchas fire has displayed some of that odd behavior.

'It's really aggressive'

"We have seen fire behavior we've never seen down here, and it's really aggressive," says Los Alamos fire chief Donald Tucker.

Fire crews were hoping to use the burn scars from the 2000 Cerro Grande fire – recolonized with grasses and shrubs that represent less abundant fuel than the Ponderosas and other conifers the fire has fed on so far – to help anchor their fire breaks.

Instead, when the Las Conchas fire reached the burn scar, the grass and shrubs burned, as expected. But the region is so dry – 0.19 inches of rain since Jan. 1 – and the fire has been so hot that it also has reignited the downed, blackened trees that lie around the landscape "like match sticks," Chief Tucker says.

Backfires set to establish fuel-free zones to the south and west of Los Alamos and the national laboratory so far have proven effective, Tucker says.

"Our piece of the puzzle looks good," although areas to the north are not so fortunate, he acknowledges.

To date, firefighters have been able to contain just 3 percent of the fire, which has destroyed 13 homes and damaged 3 others that were in sparsely populated areas.

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