We saw the first sign of the looming catastrophe that is now bearing down on a beloved small town nestled where the plains meet the Rockies months ago here in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains.
As of Sunday, Cimarron, New Mexico is a ghost town with mandatory evacuations in place thanks to the 30,000 acre wildfire sending plumes of choking smoke into skies that have been clear and blue for much of this spring so far. Ash falls on the deserted streets rather than the much-needed rain that might have prevented the wildfire, which sparked to life early Thursday in the forest to the west of town.
But really, we knew it would have taken biblical April and May showers to prevent this from happening. Instead, we’ve had weeks of winds. Nerve-wracking, moisture-sucking gusts whipping down the mountains and across the already crispy plains.
The signs conditions were ripe for an epic fire began to mount in January. The first avalanche safety training of the season, scheduled to take place near the roof of New Mexico at Taos Ski Valley was cancelled due to a severe lack of snow. As in almost none. There was little threat of even lackadaisical snowball fights this winter, let alone avalanches.
Another month went by and few flurries flew, leading to the cancellation of the second training session.
By February, USDA SNOTEL snowpack reporting stations in the Sangres are typically measuring multiple feet of snow at various spots between 10,000 and 13,000 feet of elevation. This year, most of those stations were returning error messages by mid-February due to a dearth of anything to measure. Rather than piles of snow, only whisps of dry grass and parched pine trees surrounded the automated stations.
— Allison Martinez (@KRQEAllison) June 1, 2018
Now, as the summer season starts, the state of New Mexico consists of millions of acres of that same dry grass and wood. One of the driest winters in living memory has transformed the Land of Enchantment into a tinderbox. For weeks now we’ve simply been waiting for the spark we knew was inevitable.
Two weeks ago, rafting a popular section of the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos required a few hours to float just a few miles due to the river’s extremely low flow. A bathtub ring-like stain along the huge volcanic boulders lining the riverbed revealed the despairing disparity compared to last spring when nearly ten times as much water was flowing through the canyon.
Further downriver, the Rio Grande is already running dry south of Albuquerque. This is not nearly normal this early in the year.
So yea, we knew this was coming. It was just a question of exactly when and where.
But really, the signs this was coming have been etched on the wall for much longer. Not with words, necessarily, but instead with a more clear and succinct symbol: a hockey stick. Not a real hockey stick, and not really a symbol either, but a real representation of a very real reality. This is the hockey stick I’m talking about.
The hockey stick tells us the world is getting warmer. It tells us the southwest is getting drier. It has made climate cycles more erratic and extreme. So, this has been a long time coming. No. Actually, it’s been in process for a while now, but things are about to intensify again.
Maybe it’s not again. After all, the hockey stick blade has been growing ever longer in recent years; only the aim of its slapshot changes.
Now, we suppose, it is our turn to be the target. The signs have been visible here for months.
Today the Ute Park Fire is bearing down on Cimarron, home to heaps of Old West history, one of the world’s most famous haunted hotels and the Philmont Scout Camp where millions of memories have been made. Our heads are filled involuntarily with visions of tragedy burned into multiple California landscapes over the past 12 months.
Our distaste of population density like that seen on the coasts may save us from the epic amounts of damage seen in places like Santa Rosa last year, but it won’t be any less devastating.
Wildfire is no longer just a season here; it is a new way of life in the high desert. We are living not on the razor’s edge, but on the ever-lengthening blade of a hockey stick.