ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Over the last two decades, more than 5 million acres of land have been burned by wildfires in and around New Mexico. The fires range from small blazes to thousand-acre infernos. So how does this year’s wildfire season compare?

A history of fires

New Mexico is no stranger to wildfires. With frequent droughts, high winds, and a variety of vegetation acting as fuel, the state has had more than 1,000 wildfires larger than 100 acres since the year 2000, according to records kept by the National Interagency Fire Center and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG).

KRQE News 13 tallied those records to discover that more than 5 million acres of New Mexico land have been charred over the past 20 years. About half of the fires were caused by lightning or another non-human source. About 37% of the fires were human-caused, the data shows. And the cause is unknown for about 10% of the large wildfires since 2000.

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Interactive: New Mexico’s large fires tend to occur in the state’s forested areas. But nearly every region has been touched by wildfire. Data from: National Interagency Fire Center and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group ‘s Southwest Coordination Center. Note* location data may have errors.


To explore New Mexico’s history of wildfires, KRQE News 13 analyzed data and historical accounts. Topping the list is the state’s largest recorded wildfire: the Whitewater-Baldy Fire.

2012 Whitewater-Baldy Fire

If you were in New Mexico a decade ago, you might remember this one. The U.S. Forest Service recognizes the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex as the largest burn in New Mexico’s history.

The initial spark was caused by lightning on May 9, 2012, according to the Forest Service’s chronology. It struck a remote portion of the Gila Wilderness Area in southwestern New Mexico. Seven days later, lightning started another fire nearby. Together, they would become the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex.

The rugged, steep, boulder-filled terrain made fighting the fires incredibly difficult, the Forest Service account reveals. Six days after the second blaze started, the fires had combined and grew from around 2,000 acres to over 70,000 acres in a single day.


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Satellite imagery from June 5, 2012 showing the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex. In the false -color image, red is the burn scar, vegetation is green, and land is tan. Imagery from NOAA; image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.


Ultimately, the fire burned around 300,000 acres. That’s more than double the area of Albuquerque. And it took about two months to contain and end the fire.

2011 Las Conchas Fire

While this one only burned about half the acres that the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire torched, the Las Conchas fire was still massive. It started quickly and burned nearly an acre a second, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

It began Jun 26, 2011, when a tree fell onto a powerline. The fire ignited southwest of Los Alamos, New Mexico and took advantage of particularly dry vegetation. In only 13 hours, it burned more than 44,000 acres, according to the NPS.

It burned for a little less than two months, according to SWCC data. In that time, it burned a total of 156,593 acres in the Jemez Mountains.


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Photo of the Las Conchas Fire. Source: USGS.


While the fire was large, a 2016 research study estimated that it could have been worse. But hanks to a previous fire, the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, some would-be fuels had already been cleaned out, the study revealed.

The fire destroyed at least 63 homes and scorched some historical sites. 1,104 cultural sites, created around 850 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples, were located within the burn area, according to NPS.

Does size matter? Measuring impact beyond acres burned

There are many ways to compare one year of wildfires to another. For example, you could look at the total number of large fires per year.

Over the last 20 years, 2011 had the most 100+ acre fires in a year, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). That year, New Mexico saw more than 150 large fires.

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In the past two decades, 2011 stands out as having the highest count of large fires. Data from: National Interagency Fire Center and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group ‘s Southwest Coordination Center.


But, not every large fire is equally severe or dangerous. Here are some particularly damaging fires.

2012 Little Bear Fire

While only around 44,000 acres, this lightning-caused fire was one of New Mexico’s most damaging. The blaze began on June 4, 2012. In four days, firefighters were able to establish a perimeter, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report.

But that same day, high winds took embers to nearby homes. The fire quickly burned 242 houses near Ruidoso, New Mexico, and damaged additional buildings, the report notes. The total economic cost exceeded $11 million, according to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration archive.


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Satellite imagery from June 12, 2012 showing the Little Bear Fire Complex. In the false -color image, red is the burn scar, vegetation is green, and land is tan. Imagery from NOAA; image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team.


2008 Trigo Fire

The human-caused Trigo Fire from 2008 made it on to a list of America’s most devastating wildfires, according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS). It damaged 59 homes, the PBS list notes.

The resulting damage led to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designation. This means the U.S. president declared the region a disaster area. As a result, FEMA granted $2.1 million in public assistance funds.

2000 Cerro Grande Fire

This one might have been one of the state’s most expensive fires. In 2000, the Cerro Grande Fire only burned around 43,000 acres, but it destroyed 260 residences and damaged Los Alamos National Laboratories, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

About 18,000 people had to be evacuated, the report says. Fire suppression alone cost $33.5 million — repairs to the national lab cost over $300 million. All direct and indirect expenses totaled, that fire cost nearly a billion dollars, the report shows.

Will this year’s fires top the list?

As for 2022, there have already been several wildfires. As cliché as it sounds, only time will tell how the year stacks up to previous years. But as Wendy Mason, the spokesperson for the New Mexico Forestry Division told KRQE News 13, this year’s drought conditions are bad news for firefighters.