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Amid driest conditions on record, New Mexico sweats every spark

In its third straight year of drought, New Mexico is seeing the warmest, driest conditions on record. Seven wildfires are now burning, and dry storms are yielding lightning strikes but little rain. Relief is unlikely, forecasters say.

By Darla Sue DollmanContributor / July 5, 2013

The Rio Grande flows around large sand bars in Bernalillo, N.M., Thursday, May 9. In its third consecutive year of drought, New Mexico is currently experiencing the warmest, driest conditions on record.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/File


Rio Rancho, N.M.

New Mexico is a tinderbox ready to spark. In its third consecutive year of drought, the state is currently experiencing the warmest, driest conditions on record.

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According to New Mexico state climatologist David DuBois, the trees, plants, and wildlife in more than 93 percent of the state are struggling to survive in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

The combination of drought and triple-digit temperatures is creating fuels so dry that the smallest spark creates a flame, and minutes later another deadly inferno is raging in the Southwest.

On June 30, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a wildfire firefighting unit based in Prescott, Ariz., died working the front lines of a fire outside Yarnell, Ariz. The wind shifted suddenly, leaving them with little or no time to seek shelter. A few weeks earlier, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were in New Mexico fighting the Thompson Ridge Fire in the Jemez Mountains, alongside members of the Santa Fe Fire Department's Atalaya Hand Crew.

As firefighters mourn the loss of their friends, they continue to fight seven wildfires actively burning in New Mexico, while watching the skies for rain. They hear thunder and their hearts pound with hope for relief from the Southwest monsoons. Instead, the storms bring cloud-to-ground lightning but little moisture, increasing the possibility of even more wildfires.

The Southwest monsoons

The Southwest monsoons start in northern Mexico, which receives moisture from two sides: California and the Gulf of Mexico. When the land reaches its peak of heat late in the summer months, often with triple-digit temperatures, the winds change direction and the monsoons begin.

But Dr. DuBois, the state's climatologist, has few encouraging words for those waiting for the Southwest monsoons.

"There is a chance of some improvement in the situation in the southwest portion of the state, a glimmer of hope, but not for the central and eastern portions of New Mexico," DuBois said in a recent interview. "Some areas have already received good precipitation, but it may take more than a year of rains to bring the forage back that is necessary for livestock and wildlife."

DuBois is working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center in an effort to advise ranchers, city managers, wildlife groups, and wildlife refuge managers on the possibility of rain. He meets quarterly with the governor's Drought Task Force and offers a monthly webinar for residents that explains water levels and flows, and any departures from the seasonal forecast.

Competing interests

The drought, extreme heat, wildfires, and destruction are all part of the circle of life in the Southwest, says Charna Lefton, spokeswoman for the state Fish and Wildlife Department.


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