NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Last year, New Mexico saw a record-breaking year of wildfires, which might make it seem like the state is particularly prone to burn. But what does the data show?
Research on the likelihood of fire reveals that New Mexico’s populated areas are more likely to experience wildfire than 73% of states across the U.S., on average. That’s according to research from the U.S. Forest Service and their partners.
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The U.S. Forest Service shows that much of New Mexico has elevated odds of wildfire occurrence. Image from U.S. Forest Service.
“We’re looking at an ensemble of all different weather conditions that might occur and then determining how likely a place is to see a wildfire in a given year,” says Greg Dillon, the director of the Fire Modeling Institute at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Dillon’s team found that “73% of states in the country have lower fire likelihood than New Mexico.”
“What that is telling you is that the environment in New Mexico has vegetation that is adapted to having wildfire,” Dillon says. “So, you have vegetation and fuels – ecosystems really – that have fire as a natural component of how they function. They are what we might call ‘fire-prone’ landscapes.”
To figure out wildfire likelihood, Dillon and his collaborators ran thousands of simulations that use factors like weather, topography, and ignition sources. But what the models don’t include is the exact, current conditions, which can play a big role in a wildfire. The models also don’t include the effects of recent wildfire on the landscape – the data the models are built on is several years old.
“If you’ve had a large fire in your area in the last couple years, the risk or the likelihood of fire on your landscape probably isn’t reflected [in the most recent map],” Dillon says. Just like prescribed burns can help reduce fuels and reduce risk, areas with recent natural wildfires may have reduced likelihood of another fire.
And seasonal differences can also impact risk and likelihood. Heavy snowfall in some portions of New Mexico through March could reduce wildfire risk in local areas. But even if seasonal weather helps out over the course of one fire year, the general trend is that the western portion of the U.S. is seeing more and more fires.
“We definitely know that wildfire activity has been increasing in the U.S. and in a lot of parts of the world in recent years,” Dillon says. “Our fire seasons are getting longer – there are more days with conditions susceptible to burning – and it all goes right in line with what we hear about our changing climate.”
On top of that, housing and community development has spread into fire-prone areas, Dillon says. That, of course, increases the odds that a wildfire will have a negative impact on us humans.