Fingers of fire damage in the Valles Caldera west of Santa Fe

After a brutally dry and windy late winter and spring here in the Southwest, I suppose it was inevitable that one of the Four Horsemen of the Western States would be unleashed: Fire. First Arizona, then Texas, and then, in mid-June, New Mexico. Santa Fe suffered through a week of smoky sky, bad air, and mercurichrome sun from the huge fires in southeastern Arizona early in June, only to experience the unpleasant shock, after this had cleared away, of seeing a fire erupt in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains only 9 miles northeast of the city. Under conditions like we’ve been experiencing this year, a forest fire seems to go off like an atomic bomb. There’s the smoke, and then, with sickening swiftness, a huge cumulus cloud forms over the mountains, cauliflower white above, bruised and angry below, and you know that the fire has crowned and will not be controlled.

Hardly had this fire – the Pacheco Fire – burst into action, when an ugly grey smear spread itself over our northern sky and boiling pyrocumulus in the west signaled another disaster. This was the Las Conchas Fire, the fire that is still burning, although marginally now, the largest forest fire in New Mexico’s history, and one that required the evacuation of Los Alamos for the second time in this short century. At this point, authorities basically shut the state down as far as forest recreation is concerned, and only now are some tentative moves being made to reopen. I’ll mention that status later for those of you on your way to see us. (And please do; in spite of the fires Santa Fe has been remarkably spared smoke, since prevailing winds this time of year take things to the north and east.)

Highway 4, the road to Bandelier National Monument and the Valle Grande National Preserve has been reopened to the public, and today I had a drive along the highway, which winds right through the heart of the fire’s path. Forest fires are erratic things, incinerating one ridgeline down to the rocks, sparing the next, eating its way usefully (in nature’s economy) among the underbrush for miles, then bursting out in deadly crown fires as it climbs up into the canopy again. It works hand in hand with the wind, and when the wind is hot, dry, and swift, nothing can stop a fire.

Here’s a picture of the ridge above the Las Conchas trailhead right at the beginning of one of my favorite hikes in the Jemez Mountains:

Looking east from the Las Conchas trailhead

This is very close to where the fire ignited. It spread with extreme swiftness to the east, right into Bandelier National Monument, and then spread both north and south, impacting practically all of the eastern Jemez Mountains. Parts of the forest badly burned by the Los Alamos fire in 2000 were burned again, and the fire got even closer to the Los Alamos National Laboratory than it did then.

All of the eastern side of the Valle Grande National Preserve is burned:

The caldera wall on the east side of the Valle Grande

For comparison, here’s that same scene in a recent winter:

Valle Grande in winter

The forests of the American West are fire adapted, of course – it’s those of us who live here who are not – and much of this fire seemed to me to be of the healthy clearing variety.

Fire thinning


Unfortunately there are places where the forest burned with such intensity that recovery will be very slow on the human time scale, and collateral damage will impact some much loved places. I’m thinking of Frijoles Canyon in the western part of Bandelier National Monument, whose southern walls, from what I could see, have simply been stripped to the bone by the conflagration. From a geological viewpoint, these fire scars are nature’s chisel-strokes for shaping the mountains, a fire and then floods, pulling down the ancient colluvium and exposing new bedrock to weathering. This is not a comforting observation, however, when your reservoir, or beautiful canyon, is right in the watershed.

For better or worse, our summer rains have not been forthcoming this year. I’m hoping for lots of thick and gentle snow this winter, myself. For those of you coming out for a visit, I can report that, as of this time, not only is Highway 4 through the Jemez Mountains open, but the Tsankawi portion of Bandelier is open to hiking, as is Juniper Campground and the trails that lead from there to points overlooking Frijoles Canyon. Santa Fe is still pretty much in lockdown, although you can visit Cerrillos Hills State Park south of us, and have some good walks on Ghost Ranch, in the Georgia O’Keeffe Country, about an hour and a half’s drive from Santa Fe.