Los Alamos Is Only the Latest of New Mexico's Travails

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Jae C. Hong / AP

A wildfire burns near Los Alamos, N.M., on June 28, 2011

Residents across New Mexico might be wondering what they did to anger Mother Nature. Ever since 2011 arrived on the scene, the weather has been nothing but ugly, beginning with a terrifying winter and now terrifying fires, with the nebulous (though still unlikely) possibility of nuclear contamination.

It began with a mass of arctic air in early February that sent temperatures plummeting to depths never seen in the state. Pipes froze, and many schools and government offices were closed to preserve gas supplies, which became so scarce that the New Mexico Gas Co. suspended service to some northern New Mexico communities, including Taos, in order to prevent the entire system from shutting down. The big freeze destroyed 99% of the state's peach crop and damaged many other fruit crops.

Spring came late, bringing with it fierce winds that kicked up dust clouds so thick, they obscured nearby mountains. Typically, the spring winds are gone by the end of May. But this year, they are still raging. And then there's the rain problem, or the lack of it. Only 0.19 of an inch of moisture has fallen from the skies since last October, making this the driest period since 1897, when the state began keeping track. In the mountains outside Albuquerque, wild irises still managed to stage a bloom a month ago, and Fairy Slipper orchids peeked out next to stately ponderosa pines. But giant conifers lay on their sides, as if their parched roots couldn't hold onto the earth any longer.

"I feel like part of this is just Mother Nature, and part of it is, 'Oh boy!,' " says Leanne Kiesling, who has lived in Cochiti Lake for the past 14 years. "You have to wonder about our carbon footprint."

The outbreak in late May of the Wallow fire in eastern Arizona was a harbinger of what was to come in New Mexico. Every evening for more than a week, a thick cloud of smoke from that fire settled over Albuquerque, 200 miles (322 km) away. On some nights the smoke cloud was so thick that it first turned the sun red, and then obliterated it, much like a winter snowstorm moving in. To be in Albuquerque then was like being inside a campfire. Folks with respiratory problems headed for relatives' homes in neighboring states, but others remained, forced inside with the windows shut. Thankfully, the temperatures hadn't reached 100°F (38°C) yet.

"It was eerie when the smoke was so thick," says Charles LeBlanc. "We thought of putting a mask on our 18-month-old daughter Charlotte, but given that she won't even keep a hat on, we knew that wouldn't work. We just kept her inside and didn't run the air conditioner, which made for some uncomfortable nights."

Now with temperatures hitting 100°F (38°C) and the winds still whipping up to 50 m.p.h. (80 k.p.h.) some afternoons, the wildfires have made their way into New Mexico. Much of the state's public land has been closed to hikers, including the national forests bordering Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Nonetheless, a fire broke out in the forest north of Santa Fe more than a week ago, and has grown to more than 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares). As the smoke from that fire billowed above Santa Fe on June 26, another fire broke out in the Jemez Mountains, about 50 miles (80 km) away.

The new blaze, called the Las Conchas fire, grew quickly, and on June 27, the city of Los Alamos was evacuated, bringing back frightening memories of 2000, when the Cerro Grande fire destroyed more than 350 homes. The Las Conchas fire grew to more than 40,000 acres (16,187 hectares) in two days, causing Los Alamos fire chief Doug Tucker to call it the most active fire he'd seen in his 42-year career. By comparison, the Cerro Grande fire took 12 days to destroy 45,000 acres (18,211 hectares).

So far, Los Alamos, along with the town's reason for existence, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has escaped the fire's wrath. Law-enforcement officers and National Guard vehicles creep along the city's empty streets in a mission to keep them safe from looters. The fire has closed in on the laboratory's boundaries but has not made inroads. By June 29, the fire had destroyed 61,000 acres (24,686 hectares) and was still raging out of control.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark does not expect the fire to affect the lab or its sensitive materials. "Even prior to the Cerro Grande fire, we had a program to reduce the fuel load by the lab," he says. "And from that fire, we learned that we had to be more aggressive in thinning underbrush near chief facilities." At Area G, where radioactive waste is stored in fire-resistant domes on cement pads, gravel and asphalt have replaced native vegetation and a sprinkler system serves as another layer of protection.

With the Fourth of July approaching and fireworks stands bustling with business, residents and officials are worried. If only they could get a word with Mother Nature, they would ask for one more record: the wettest July ever in New Mexico.