Fire Season is Here ~ The Land Desk

Bits and pieces from a drying land

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It was an eerie and incongruent sight: Billows of gray smoke rising into the blue, seemingly from within the red rock of Moab, as though a pyroclastic Slickrock monster was emerging from a long slumber or the La Sal Laccolith were rediscovering its volcaniclastic roots. 

The monster was the Pack Creek Fire, apparently sparked by a campfire, which tore through the parched vegetation—along with some of the structures at the Pack Creek Ranch—where the slopes of the La Sal Mountains meet up with desert stone. By the evening of June 10 the fire had burned across 650 acres, three structures had been lost, and the blaze was 0 percent contained. 

Pack Creek is just one of many blazes smoking up the skies of the Southwest. The Telegraph Fire near Superior, Arizona, threatened to char the lovely Emery oaks that give the embattled Oak Flat its name and, at 85,000 acres is bound to merge with the nearby Mescal Fire, which is licking at the towns of Globe and Miami. The Slate Fire north of Flagstaff grew to 5,000 acres virtually overnight. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 20 large, active fires—Pack Creek isn’t included because it’s not yet big enough—are burning Westwide.

Fire season has roared into the Western United States with a vengeance. Although it is now routine, it still comes as a shock, particularly when it arrives in early June. But we can’t say we are surprised. We knew it was coming. The flames and smoke are only the most visible manifestation of the mass aridification of the West that has taken hold in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, some rivers have been reduced to a trickle already. A few decades ago those same rivers would have been raging with spring runoff—and boaters getting thrashed by rapids—right now. 

Obviously there was no boating on the Dolores this year and one can only assume that any trout in the river have perished, replaced, perhaps, by catfish that ply the deep pools that form in the Dolores River gorge. And the farmers are having a rough go of it, too, as they’ll get just a tiny fraction of the water they normally would. Montezuma County has declared a drought disaster

Lake Mead has dropped to its lowest level since it was filled up a long time ago, diminishing the hydropower capacity of Hoover Dam. That, in turn, will increase the potential for power outages due to high demand for power and not enough supply this summer. 

Utah’s governor implored his constituents from all religions to pray for rain. No word yet on whether he’s going to fallow his alfalfa fields as well. In Las Vegas, they are getting crazy and tearing up “non-functional” turf in order to save water (no word on a moratorium on new residential construction, though). 

June 9th 202145 Retweets205 Likes

My home river, the Animas¹ in southwestern Colorado, has hit its spring runoff peak and it was a rather anticlimactic climax, if I may say so myself, barely breaking 3,000 cubic feet per second for a brief moment in early June. More disturbing is to see how flows in the river have been consistently far below the median levels all spring (and last summer and winter, too). 

Spring runoff in 2020 compared to that in 2021. Note that the graphs top out at different levels. Source: USGS. 

Here’s what that quick recent melt-off looked like at the Red Mountain SNOTEL site, where 20 inches of snow vanished in a week’s time: 

Some of this is due to lack of moisture falling out of the sky. Some of it also has to do with warming temperatures: 

Phoenix and Central Arizona are under an excessive heat warning, due to the fact that temperatures are expected to range from 108 F to 118 F degrees over the coming week. Moab is expected to hit 109 F, Grand Junction 105 F—under a cloud of Pack Creek Fire-smoke, Durango 97 F. And the National Weather Service issued an extreme fire danger warning for parts of Utah and Colorado for the first time in 15 years

Ouch. Well, good thing summer’s almost over, right!? Oh, wait. It hasn’t even begun. 

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