SANTA FE, N.M. — The smoke emerges, like a white veil draped across the sky, on the drive up from Albuquerque to this picturesque city of 84,000.
Historically, New Mexico’s wildfire season begins in May or June, but this year, wildfires sprung up in the drought-parched New Mexican desert in April. By April 23, more than 20 wildfires were burning in 16 of the state’s 33 counties. Last week, two of them merged into one megafire, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. By Sunday, the New York Times reported, it had burned nearly 104,000 acres — more than 160 square miles — and smoke from it and another wildfire had blanketed most of northern New Mexico.
About 6,000 people from 32 communities in the area have been ordered to evacuate, and 1,100 firefighters have been working to contain the blaze.
Scientists say that this is not just a freak occurrence but rather the new normal caused by climate change.
“We’re really seeing an increase in these fires outside the normal summer season, the normal warm season, really across the West,” Kaitlyn Weber, a data analyst at the research organization Climate Central, told Yahoo News.
Warmer temperatures, which cause more evaporation, dry out the landscape and create the conditions for wildfires to break out. In addition, climate change causes more extreme weather, such as unseasonably warm days in winter, and may even be causing stronger winds — another risk factor for fire — due to jet-stream disruption.
“We had the big Marshall Fire in December in Colorado, we had the Big Sur fires here in California in January. [Fires] have just been happening throughout the year,” Weber said.
“Our risk season is incredibly and dangerously early,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said on April 23, by which time 200 structures in her state had already burned.
In August 2021, Climate Central released a report showing that the number of “fire weather days” — hot, dry, windy days that are ripe for wildfires — has increased dramatically over the last few decades. Analyzing data from 225 weather stations in 17 states across the West since 1973, Climate Central found that these days have become much more common, especially in New Mexico.
“Parts of New Mexico, Texas, and Southern California have experienced some of the largest increases in fire weather days each year,” the report’s summary stated. “Areas of New Mexico are now seeing two more months of fire weather than was the case nearly a half century ago.”
“As climate change continues to warm our Earth, it increases temperatures across the landscape,” Weber said. “It causes this drying trend that’s really happening throughout the Southwest. So we’re seeing warm temperatures, drier days and, if the winds pick up, really dangerous conditions.”
The drying out of New Mexico — a February study in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the last 20 years were the driest two decades in at least 1,200 years — is largely responsible.
“As it gets warmer, then it increases evaporation, things gets drier, plants get drier, basically setting up fuels for these big fires. So when they happen, they burn longer, more severely,” Weber said.
Along New Mexico State Road 518, part of which runs along the scenic route known as the High Road to Taos, one can see the pale, dead grasses and pine trees, sitting like kindling along the roadside. Some stretches of intersecting roads are blocked, to keep traffic from getting too close to the ongoing blazes.
Living near nature, with the desert in sight, is central to the charm that has drawn tourists and new residents to the state. As a result, Climate Central estimates that more than 1.4 million people in New Mexico, approximately 70% of its population, lives in an area at-risk from wildfires, the so-called “wildland-urban interface.”
Right now, smoke comes and goes in Santa Fe and other nearby towns, depending on the winds. At best, the sky overhead is clear and the smoke to the west creates a startlingly magenta sunset. At worst, the smoke settles in around you, creating a fog-like haze, and it can be smelled and tasted in the air. On those days, the Air Quality Index (AQI) — the Environmental Protection Agency’s measure of air pollution — spikes well into the “unhealthy” range. Taos experienced those conditions on Sunday, and Santa Fe did on Monday.
“This morning, I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t see the mountains when I left my house. I couldn’t see any of the vistas or any of the landscapes, so there was no point in going hiking today,” Whitney Joiner, a resident of Taos, N.M., told Yahoo News on Sunday. “Not only could you not breathe, it hurt to breathe and people were wearing masks. And then a friend of mine who I go hiking with, she has asthma and she said she was inside with the air purifier and she was still coughing.”
“The Air Quality Index was 159, and when I looked up ‘Should I go outside at 159?’ it was like, ‘No,’” Joiner added. “I don’t really know anything about AQI, but that’s a new way of looking at my life.”
Climate change has also made it harder to perform routine forest maintenance — in which overgrown areas are deliberately burned with controlled fires — to reduce the risk of wildfires that can spin out of control and threaten communities.
“One of these fires was actually a prescribed burn fire that actually burned out of control when the winds picked up,” Weber noted. “As we see more of these fire weather days, we’re going to see a decrease in the number of days where you can do prescribed burns, which is really helpful, but you need the right conditions to do that.”
Other states throughout the West have also experienced megafires in recent years. A 2016 study from Climate Central found that “across the Western U.S., the average annual number of large fires (larger than 1,000 acres) burning each year has more than tripled between the 1970s and the 2010s.” Last summer, wildfires ravaged Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia, Canada.
In February, a United Nations report declared a “global wildfire crisis” is developing due to climate change, pointing to recent extreme fire outbreaks in countries such as Australia and even in Russian towns north of the Arctic Circle.
“As long as we keep emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we can expect that we are going to keep seeing this warming trend, we are going to keep seeing this drying trend — at least out here in the Southwest and the West, and so we’re going to see more of these fire weather days per year,” Weber said.