Updated: Thursday, 26 Apr 2012, 5:51 PM MDT
Published : Thursday, 26 Apr 2012, 5:39 PM MDT
TIJERAS, N.M. (KRQE) - After a historic fire season last year, the U.S. Forest Service is hoping for a quick turn toward an El Niño weather pattern to take the heat off wildland firefighters this year.
USFS weather guru Jeff Maxwell said Thursday the hot, dry anchor that lodged over the Southwest last year was influenced by La Niña, a cooling of waters in the central Pacific.
That appears to be shifting to a wetter El Niño pattern, but speed is of the essence. It must happen quickly to reduce the drought and threat of fire, Maxwell said.
In 2011 the Las Conchas Fire, at more than 150,000 acres the largest in New Mexico history, raged across the Jemez Mountains threatening Los Alamos, its national laboratory and nearby Santa Clara Pueblo.
Statewide fires a varying intensity scorched 1.2 million acres and helped to reduced fire fuels in some areas. The relatively dry winter also held back new growth of grasses and brush.
USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency is cooperating with state, local and private landowners to prepare for wildfires and also post-fire flooding. USFS is increasing restoration efforts to thin forests so they are more resilient and to limit damage to watersheds, he added.
Last year massive floods from monsoon rains hitting the Las Conchas burn scar put Dixon's Apples on the east flank of the Jemez out of business, closed Cochiti Lake as mud and debris flowed in and caused damage at Santa Clara Pueblo.
Another measure USFS is taking is to replace aging air tankers with a newer, faster fleet. In 2009 there were 43 air tankers in the contract fleet, and now there are only 11. Five of those are in New Mexico.
USFS also has launched a program called Fire Wise that teaches homeowners and landowners techniques to clear and protect their property.