Drought Conditions Fuel Wildfires Throughout The Southwest
The Wallow Fire burns in the distance.
Michel Marizco
June 17, 2011

Arizona is not the only state fighting large wildfires. New Mexicans are battling three blazes, including the Wallow Fire, which crossed the Arizona state line. It put the towns of Luna and Reserve on high alert.

To the north, near Colorado, the Track Fire burned more than 25,000 acres, led to the evacuation of hundreds and destroyed at least two homes.

Finally, the Loop Fire ignited in the south just three miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which led to evacuations. A smaller, separate fire in the woodland town of Ruidoso destroyed eight homes.

Aggravating the fire season this year is a severe drought, which is especially hurting southern New Mexico. The grounds near the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center was recently blackened by the Loop Fire. The flames spread quickly thanks to the dry landscape.

The park reopened after being shut down for 48 hours.

Park ranger Marie Merick greeted tourists on their way to watch the nightly bat flight.

“Well it's been a little bit intense and a little bit scary,” she said. “The fire started very small...it just flared up very quickly. We haven't had rain here in about nine months, so everything here is just bone dry.”

The Wallow FIre

Images from the Wallow Fire in Arizona. Photos by Nick Blumberg.

About 300 visitors were recently evacuated from deep inside the cave. A business hub at the entrance of the park, known as White's City, was also evacuated. Numerous tourists and oil workers staying at a couple of nearby hotels had to move to the nearby town of Carlsbad.

Mary Jane Sinquich said her vacation plans – which had been planned for over a year – were temporarily interrupted . She and her family had to postpone their cave visit for a day.

“We didn't even find out about the fire until we stopped off at Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the ranger asked us, 'Well, where are you going?'” she said. “And we said, 'We're going to Carlsbad' and he goes, 'No you are not. There's a fire.'”

Sinquich was one of about 100 visitors to make it to the bat flight when it reopened. Only a few hundred bats fluttered out of the cave. In good years, they can number in the tens of thousands. But the population has dropped due to the same drought conditions that are intensifying wildfires.

Joel Arnwine is the emergency manager for Eddy County. He's worked 16 hour days managing the Loop Fire alongside a logistics team in Carlsbad.

“Well the description of the conditions is pretty simple: hot dry and windy,” he said. “The desert is always dry; 20-30 percent humidity is pretty common. Our humidity in the last few days have been down in the two (to) five percent range.”

With such an active fire season throughout the southwest, Arnwine said manpower and materials are stretched.

“It makes it more difficult to get the resources that we need,” he said. “And a fire of this size in this kind of country, it's all about how many resources you can get to put on the fire to get the fire put out.”

Before the beginning of each fire season, about five New Mexico agencies put together an action plan. They set a budget and negotiate contracts with outside agencies.

Jay Ellington collects data on fires for the Southwest Coordination Center, which manages fire emergencies for multiple agencies throughout the region.

“We're in pretty good shape for what's occurred in New Mexico, ” Ellington said.

Despite a challenging season, firefighting efforts in New Mexico have largely prevailed. More than 600,000 acres have burned and so far there's been no reported deaths and damage to homes and buildings has been minimal.