TIJERAS, N.M. — Karen Takai picks up cold charcoals from an abandoned campfire illegally kindled among moisture-starved juniper trees in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque.
"This is a bad thing, a very bad thing," said Takai, fire information officer for the Cibola National Forest's Sandia Ranger District. "It looks fairly recent, and the problem is that, statistically, 50 percent of the fires on the Sandias are due to abandoned campfires."
If Takai's worry is more pronounced than usual this year, it's with good reason: New Mexico's landscape is withering in what is shaping up to be the second-driest winter since the National Weather Service began keeping records in the state 112 years ago.
Snowpack is almost nil on the mountains and wind has sucked moisture from plants and soil. A trace of recent rain served merely as dust abatement.
The driest November-February period was 1903-1904, when the state received an average of 0.39 of an inch of precipitation, said Charlie Liles, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.
"My guess is that it's going to come out around 0.5 of an inch for this go around," he said.
"It's shaping up to be similar to other years in which we've had some severe fires," Liles said. "This is worse than 2000. That's when we had Los Alamos."
That blaze — the Cerro Grande Fire — was kindled as an intentional burn at Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains. It roared out of control, burning 47,650 acres and more than 200 structures. Fires scorched 519,177 acres in New Mexico in 2000.
This year's fire season is arriving a couple of months earlier than usual, said Mary Zabinski, fire information officer for the Southwest Coordination Center.
"Usually we're attending to things in April or May instead of February," she said.
Blame this year's dry weather on La Nina. The weather phenomenon flares up when the tropical Pacific Ocean is dominated by cooler water, causing fewer storms to track over New Mexico, particularly during winter and spring.
The dry winter came after a wet 2004 and early 2005 that spurred a splendid pelt of grasses in New Mexico. The grasses have since dried to a crisp.
"It really creates a scenario that you could easily have very rapidly moving fires in those fine fuels that carry into the larger fuels (trees)," Liles said.
The scenario has gone according to script so far this year — 99,512 acres of mainly grassland have burned as of Friday, primarily in eastern New Mexico, according to the Southwest Coordination Center.
"I've been here 16 years, and I have not seen it this dry at this time," Takai said of the Cibola. Moisture in trees is around 8 percent when it should be 20 to 25 percent, she said.
The threat of fires will spread into increasingly higher terrain — and its trees — from early April into summer.
"Burns will be easier to start; fires will be faster and carry more easily," said Chuck Maxwell, predictive services group leader at the Southwest Coordination Center.
"It's expected to be much above normal in terms of the demand on resources," he said.
Planning for this year's fire season began last year, Zabinski said. "We knew this was coming up six to 12 months out, so you just prepare for it," she said.
Fire restrictions have been posted for a number of areas, she said.
New Mexico is a little more flush in resources this year than last, and those resources are in place with the help of federal "severity" funding coming in sooner than usual, Zabinski said.
The state has about 150 engines; eight air tankers are available, as are 10 single-engine air tankers and eight helicopters, she said.
Additional resources could be pulled in from the Northwest, which has been inundated with moisture, Zabinski said.
The New Mexico Legislature approved a capital outlay measure this year that includes $4 million for wildfire protection and firefighting equipment statewide. Gov. Bill Richardson supports the expenditure, said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson.
Takai urged rural residents to have a plan in case of fire.
"I don't want people to panic. This is not a panic time. Just focus on the issue at hand and resolve the issues that you have in your yard or your home," she said.
"Don't wait until it's at your front door," Takai said.
Takai, who lives in a rural area, said every part of her life has been affected by this early fire season.
"I have been sleeping, but not well," she said.
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