By Jim Owen
Despite some rain last week, and scattered showers the past couple of days, authorities say Grant County remains in "extreme drought" conditions.
Dry grasses and other vegetation are ripe for wildfire, as evidenced by the Signal Fire in the Gila National Forest and other recent blazes in the county. The danger is not expected to decrease until the summer "monsoon" season, which usually begins in late June or early July.
May is typically the driest month in southwest New Mexico, so residents welcomed the rain that some parts of the county received during the past week. However, the benefits of precipitation this time of year are short-lived, as the hot sun and gusty winds quickly sap the moisture.
According to a NASA report, a rain-producing El NiÒo weather pattern developing in the Pacific Ocean could be the germination of this year's monsoons in the Southwest. Meteorologists suggest that the situation is similar to conditions in May 1997, one of the wettest years in recent history. (For more information, visit http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83653&src=eoa-iotd.
Grant County Fire Chief Randy Villa pointed out that predicting the onset and intensity of the rainy season is difficult.
"They can't pinpoint exactly when it will come," he said, explaining that sometimes the monsoons arrive as late as August. In some years, when rainfall is infrequent or spotty, the high fire risk continues into the fall.
Villa referred to a recent government report indicating that "significant wildfire activity is expected by the end of May" in southwest New Mexico. Forecasters predict "above-normal wildfire potential in June and July," with "normal" potential in the Gila National Forest.
The greatest fire threat is in the county's lower-elevation areas, including the grasslands, valleys and foothills. That is where the driest fuels, and most of the population, are found. The situation is not much better in the forest, where officials rate the fire danger as "very high."
Gabe Holguin, the Gila's fire officer, told Grant County commissioners last week that trees in the forest are "really dry." He reported that parts of the Burro Mountains, southwest of Silver City, are particularly vulnerable to wildfire. There could be "a lot of fires" this year, Holguin warned.
The problem with thunderstorms in May and early June is that they sometimes feature lightning with little or no rain. That poses a fire risk, as does increased visitation of the forest by campers and hikers in the spring.
Villa and Holguin noted that last year's monsoons caused the growth of tall grasses, which are now dry and extremely receptive to fire. A tiny spark can start a huge blaze, especially in windy conditions.
"What the county can do, and has done, is make sure our fire restrictions and fireworks ban are in place," Villa told the Beat. He advised residents and visitors to check with the appropriate local, state or federal agency regarding fire restrictions before engaging in any activity that could spark a blaze.
The County Commission recently enacted an ordinance allowing the county manager or the fire management officer to place temporary bans on outdoor burning, without requiring commission action each time. The ordinance creates a process similar to that in the town of Silver City, according to Acting County Manager Abigail Robinson. Campfires in the national forest are limited to developed campgrounds. Fire restrictions also are in place on state-owned lands.
Such bans, while difficult to enforce, raise awareness about the danger. Nearly every year in Grant County, people accidentally start fires by burning trash, tossing cigarettes, driving vehicles on dry grasses, throwing hot charcoal onto the ground, and using tools and equipment that throw sparks.
The forecast offers little encouragement, with no chance of precipitation for at least the next week. Daytime high temperatures will be in the 80s and 90s.
It could be weeks before the hopes and prayers of ranchers, farmers, gardeners and others are realized. In the meantime, they are keeping their eyes to the sky in search of any sign of rain.