The Burning Season

By George Johnson | May 7, 2013 7:01 am

2011 was such a dry and terrible year here in New Mexico that 2012 was bound to be better — a regression toward the mean. But it wasn’t, and now 2013 is looking even worse. I am used to a northern New Mexico where I am still shoveling snow a few times in March and sometimes April. And that is after all the winter snows, which by now would be running as cold, icy water down the Santa Fe River and the Rio en Medio and the Capulin and the Nambe — all up and down the Sangre de Cristos — and recharging the water table. But the snowpack this winter was also a bust. And, for the first time in memory, we had no real rainy season last summer.

In March Tom Yulsman published this stunning satellite photo in a post on ImaGeo titled Land of Enchantment, Drought and Fire.

The fires of 2011. Landsat photo from USGS.

The 10,000-acre fire scar to the northeast is the Pacheco Canyon Fire (misnamed — it actually ignited two canyons northward). It was a shock, but a sadly familiar one, seeing the smoke plume from my windows. That weekend some friends and I had planned a hike right near that spot, to Nambe Lake in the Pecos Wilderness. So instead we drove to the other side of the river, the Rio Grande, and hiked up the Las Conchas Trail in the Jemez Mountains, along a beautiful stream winding through meadows. A few days later that area caught fire — and with the unseasonable winds it rapidly exploded to cover 150,000 acres, sending plumes down the canyons to the foot of the mountain, incinerating everything in sight.

This was also the year of gargantuan fires in Arizona, which began right around now, in May. The Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop was under way, and near the end of the week we had carpooled to Bandelier National Monument for our traditional hike along the cliff dwellings. The sky was weirdly overcast all day, and the reason didn’t strike me until that evening when I left a restaurant and smelled smoke. At first I thought it was someone’s fireplace — the evening was a little cool. I soon realized it was smoke coming from more than 100 miles away.

This week the workshop is in session again. I won’t have time to think about much of anything else, but I would like to republish, in my next two posts,  some observations about 2011 from my old blog The Santa Fe Review.

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About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at talaya.net. Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.

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