John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
New Mexico's major wildfires are covering the city with plumes of acrid smoke.
The delicious smell of a wood grill is wafting over New Mexico cities, but it's not coming from a community barbeque. Two ravenous wildfires are eating up trees and scrubland in the northern part of the state, putting the residents of Santa Fe in a sandwich of raging flame.
To the west is the Thompson Ridge Fire, a crackling, human-caused blaze in the Valles Caldera National Preserve that's swelled to 2,000 acres. Eastward is the Tres Lagunas Fire, a 8,500-acre conflagration sparked in late May by a downed power line. Both fires are in their infancy and expected to grow, partly due to rugged terrain that makes firefighting difficult and extremely parched land – New Mexico got less than half the amount of rain it normally does in May, and more than 80 percent of the state is in a nasty drought. Hundreds of firefighting personnel are tackling these outbreaks, which have prompted a few evacuations but no significant exodus yet.
On Saturday, a U.S. satellite passing over the Southwest caught sight of these wildfires – the first major blazes of the season for New Mexico – just as they were starting to burst. You can see the smoke trail from the larger Tres Lagunas fire in the above shot from the Aqua satellite, although the wind has since shifted and is expected to blow the cinder-filled plumes north of Santa Fe. Here's an unlabeled version that makes the landscape look like a creepy face with smoking eyes:
Meanwhile, instability in the atmosphere coupled with light winds is giving locals a chance to ogle an airborne wonder: a bloated pyrocumulus cloud, totally dominating the horizon. Twitter folks have posted several shots of the smoking monster over Thompson Ridge, while the Albuquerque outpost of the National Weather Service made this model of the ashen nebulosity. The cloud's head stretches up for nearly 6 miles:
Over at Tres Lagunas, Outside magazine made this mesmerizing time lapse of the woods fuming and glowing like a mileswide charcoal grill ready to char some steak:
On Tuesday evening, one observer had reported the "surreal" sight of charred "pine needles and ash falling on Los Alamos." But the biggest hassle for city dwellers in the coming days will be acrid smoke that could drift as far as Las Vegas. If you can't see farther than five miles because of carbonous fumes, the authorities warn, you probably shouldn't spend a ton of time outdoors.