Miracle of miracles, we got a bit of rain this week here in New Mexico. After months of drought – less than an inch of preciptation has fallen since January – on Tuesday the skies let loose, dropping more rain than I’ve ever seen fall at once in this desert.
To see if the rain had any effect on the wildfires still burning northwest of here, yesterday evening I hiked up to the mesa behind the off grid Earthship where I housesit in the winter. From up there I can see all the way across the Galisteo Basin to the Jemez Mountains, where the Los Conchas fire is still raging.
The Los Conchas fire, known outside New Mexico as the Los Alamos fire, has been burning since June 26 when high winds knocked an aspen down onto a powerline, sending off sparks and igniting what has grown into the largest wildfire in New Mexican history. To date, 150,000 acres have burned. No lives have been lost and Los Alamos was largely spared, but 63 homes have burned as well as 16,000 acres of land belonging to the Santa Clara Pueblo, much of it in the pueblo’s vital watershed.
The numbers are bad and looking across 25 miles of space to the Jemez, the plume looks as big and black as ever. Rain can certainly help dampen a wildfire, but once land has burned it’s vulnerable to flash flooding. The charred top layer of soil can’t absorb water well and without vegetation, water tends to run wild. Homeowners have to switch gears from fireproofing their houses to waterproofing them, piling sandbags and moving furniture and valuables to high ground. Rain or no rain, the Los Conchas fire is not out of the woods yet. But it does make for one hell of a sunset.