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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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The Three Rivers Fire, located 8 miles northwest of Ruidoso, has signaled that fire season has officially begun in New Mexico. The fire is estimated to have already burned more than 6,900 acres as of May 1. The area was only 13 percent contained. Almost 200 firefighters are battling the blaze. Another underwhelming winter did little to alleviate the prolonged drought that has affected much of the state. The northern mountains experienced a near-average winter, but the southern half of the state experienced an exceptionally dry winter.

Fire Trucks Battling The Three Rivers Fire. Photo Courtesy Lincoln National Forest Service.

According to the April Basin Outlook report by the Natural Resource Conservation Service of New Mexico, the Rio Hondo Basin, where the Three Rivers Fire is currently raging, is at zero percent of its snowpack median. The Rio Hondo Basin, which should have a robust and lingering snowpack well into the summer, has nothing from this last winter. The Gila, another significant range in southern New Mexico and a hotspot for wildfires in the state, also had a severely dry winter, with only 31 percent of its median snowpack as of April 1.

An area of particular concern is the Gila National Forest, which covers 3.3 million acres in southwest New Mexico. “The Gila has been expecting an active and longer fire season based on all predictive services,” said Marta Call, a public affairs officer for the Gila National Forest. “There is significant fire potential being forecast due to background drought and forecast drier and warmer conditions aided by an on-going La Niña event,” Call added.

The seasonal outlook for southern New Mexico shows us to be in extreme drought conditions. We had a weak monsoon season in 2020, and a low amount of precipitation during the winter of 2020—21. Our snowpack is low and looking at all predictions, including predicted weather, fuel moistures, etc. these have shown us to be in a position that is lining up for an early fire season,” Call said. There has been some relief for the moisture starved state, but Call noted that the moisture should be greeted with a certain weariness, “The small bursts of moisture increases the growth of fine fuels such as grasses, but doesn’t really affect the larger fuels.”

Exacerbating the fire danger caused by the severe drought, the forest service has observed a dangerous trend this last year. “We are also seeing a higher number of abandoned campfires on the Gila NF, more so than in years past,Call said. To get ahead of any potential fire starters, the Forest Service is taking a proactive approach by focusing on education. “Education is an excellent tool for wildfire preparedness. We have been speaking to our public since January–working on education and mitigation.” 

The forest service is also using social media to tackle the upcoming fire season. Each season brings with it a series of unique challenges and dangers, which the forest service tackles as much public outreach as possible. “We use social media and news releases so that people are aware of weather, dryness trends, red flag warnings, and the early possibility of fire restrictions,” Call said. 

As of April 27, the Gila and Lincoln National Forests have implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions that only allow fires in Forest Service-provided structures that have metal rings or pre-established grills to control the fire.

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