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Near-Record Dryness In New Mexico Forest

U.S. Drought Monitor (map); Santa Fe National Forest (background)
U.S. Drought Monitor Map of New Mexico, May 27, 2021.

New Mexico is experiencing its highest drought levels in the month of May since 2013. More than 77% of the state was in extreme and exceptional drought – the two worst categories – last week. And that’s down from the beginning of the month. Only about 4% of the state was this drought stricken at this time last year. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with Julie Anne Overton, Public Affairs Officer for the Santa Fe National Forest, about what this looks like on ground, and how you can prepare to get outdoors safely this summer.

JULIE ANNE OVERTON: Conditions across New Mexico are pretty dire in terms of the drought. And I know that for this wildfire season, which is upon us – June is usually our worst month – the fire personnel on my forests are extremely concerned about drought conditions.

KUNM: And so, what does that look like? What are you seeing in the Santa Fe National Forest?

OVERTON: We do a lot of different measurements. We take moisture levels in different kinds of fuels; everything from pine needle litter to big, dead and down logs. And we are finding that those measurements are at almost record levels. In other words, everything on the forest is dry, dry, dry. So, it will not take much in terms of a lightning strike or an abandoned campfire for a wildfire to really take off.

KUNM: Rainfall last month for the Rocky Mountains into the west was the second driest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Though, we have seen some rainy days over the last week here in New Mexico. Do storms like that make any kind of measurable difference in the outlook for the fire season or some of the drought conditions that you mentioned?

OVERTON: The recent rainfall we've had – while it certainly helps – to tell you the truth, things are so very dry that while very welcome, the rain that we got recently is not really enough to put a dent in these conditions. We're hoping, fingers crossed, that we have a "normal" monsoon season in July. The last time that we chatted with one of the National Weather Service meteorologists who really focuses on fire weather, they were still predicting a "normal" monsoon season. But who knows what that really means anymore?

KUNM: No doubt. We haven't seen a lot of things that have been normal as of late. So, many of the schools across the state start summer break this week, and families may begin planning some camping trips throughout the summer. What's the outlook for the summer?

OVERTON: We encourage everybody to get out and enjoy their public lands. We're blessed to have some incredibly beautiful landscapes here in New Mexico. And of course, I would say that the Santa Fe National Forest is one of the best. But I think the most important thing I would say to visitors, especially families with kids: plan ahead. We call it "know before you go." Make sure you know what kinds of fire restrictions are in place for the location you're headed. Do read up on campfire safety if campfires are allowed. Do read up on lightning safety. And be bear aware, frankly. We've got the wild critters out there too. And make sure that you share that information at an appropriate level with your kids. You know, you don't want to scare them, but you want them to be knowledgeable about some of the safety issues outside.

KUNM: Great. And finally, where can people go if they're looking for updates on the current restrictions or some of these safety tips?

OVERTON: Yeah, there are lots and lots of resources available online. Our website will have all kinds of information about fire restrictions. NMfireinfo.com will tell you where wildfires are currently burning. Other websites that are really valuable are Leave No Trace; that gives you the seven principles. The idea being: leave your public lands in at least as good a condition as they were when you found them. We had a terrible issue last year with garbage all over the forest, people just leaving bags of garbage. It's very dangerous for the wildlife, and it makes a mess, because they tear into those bags and spread it all over. So, the saying is "pack it in, pack it out," but I like to say “pack it in and take it home.”

Find out more about recent Santa Fe National Forest fire restrictions and safety here.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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