Warm winter days and then thoughts of summer fires

The Sangre de Cristo Range that serves as the backdrop for Taos had little snow on its summits in late January, nor has it snow much since then. Photo/Allen Best

As sunshine and warm days continue, thoughts shift to wildfire season

TAOS, N.M. – Sunny skies were forecast for Taos yet again this week, a town and a ski area that desperately needs snow days.

The situation is sufficiently dire that last week Lorenzo Trujillo, in a letter published in the Taos News, proposed that the town council appeal to the Taos Pueblo Elders to see if there is a snow or rain dance ceremony that could be done.

Actually, members of the Taos Pueblo did perform such a snow dance at the Taos Ski Valley in early December. Maybe a second time is the charm?

Taos has lots of company across the drought-stricken West. In a general way, common in La Niña years, those to the north have fared better than those to the south.

Even in Colorado, ski areas just a few hundred miles apart have dramatically different situations. Summit County was close to average, even before this week’s snow. Snow helped Southwest Colorado, where Telluride on Tuesday reported 12 inches of snow in 12 hours.

But as of late January, local river drainages in the San Juan Mountains were just 34 to 36 percent of average. Farther north, near Grand Junction, the Powderhorn ski area cut back its operations to Thursday through Sunday, to better conserve snow.

“There are some parts of the state that are in dire situations,” said Jim Pokrandt, of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

California has it tough, too. At Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, hydrologists last week found just 13 percent of average snowpack, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Only twice since record-keeping began in 1946 has there been less snow: 2014 and 1963. No skis were necessary to get to the site; boots were sufficient.

The problem lies off the shore of California in the form of what climate scientist Daniel Swain of the California Weather Blog calls the “strong, persistent, broad and anomalous ridge of atmospheric high pressure.” Several years ago he coined it the “ridiculously resilient ridge.”

In a Feb. 1 posting, he reported a snow drought across most of the mountainous interior of the American West caused in part by below-average precipitation but more importantly by above-average temperatures.

It’s been sizzling in Southern California. Daytime temperatures have soared above 90, overnight lows stayed above 70. In the Sierra Nevada, the temperature range was different, but the band of temperatures was also anomalous.

Swain predicts that the ongoing warm and dry spell will likely melt what little snow currently exists below about 8,000 feet in elevation.

Base elevation of Northstar is 6,330 feet; Squaw Valley 6,200 feet; Heavenly 6,255 feet. Mammoth is at 9,000 feet, although the town center is 7,500 feet.

Swain warns against expecting the atmospheric high pressure to dissipate before mid-February—and maybe not then. “It’s still possible that a robust storm sequence in late February (or another “Miracle March”) could bring a remarkable turnaround in short order. But while that possibility remains on the table the odds are long.”

In New Mexico there are already questions about potential for forest fires. If past is prelude, this could be a tricky year.

Dr. Ellis Margolis, a research ecologist, has studied tree rings and photographs of aspen stands, which commonly appear after major blazes, in assembling a history of fires in the Taos area during the last 400 years.

He found that about 90 percent of the fires broke out in spring and early summer, usually in a drought year. Often the drought year or years had been preceded by wet conditions in prior years, which likely promoted the growth of surface fuels that helped the fire to spread.

The study also found that recent forest fires, although hot-burning, have not been particularly large compared to those of the past. Those past fires did not necessarily burn down trees.

According to an account in the Taos News, Margolis advises thinning the lower-elevation ponderosa forests along with controlled burns, to reduce the risk of the frequent fires in that ecosystem.

In the sub-alpine forests found at higher elevations, fires are more rare but burn much hotter.

“The challenging part is in upper elevation forests where historically those sub-alpine forests burn in big, hot patches and burn to the ground. Whatever’s in the way could be in trouble.”

One such community in harm’s way is the Taos Ski Valley. Margolis stressed the importance of evacuation plans.

Related: Mindful of last summer’s forest fire, Colorado’s Summit County recently adopted more aggressive regulations intended to protect homes. The county has changed tis attitudes toward wildfire dramatically in the 21st century. “The day that Breckenridge got lucky” sketches that backstory.

Allen Best