A blistering fire season in New Mexico continued to blaze on May 10, 2022, as the second-largest fire in the state’s history filled the sky with thick gray smoke. On that same day, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired a true-color image that showed a massive smoke plume rising primarily from the Calf Canyon and Hermits Creek Fire complex and blowing towards the northeast. The plume, which was so thick it obscured the land beneath, stretched as much as 28 miles (44.4 km) wide and spanned at least 210 miles (338 km) from the Sangre de Christo mountains east of Santa Fe, New Mexico to north of the town of La Junta, Colorado. A thinner veil of smoke, not visible in this image, also covered parts of Kansas and Nebraska.
Many red “hot spots” mark areas where the thermal bands on the MODIS instrument detected high temperatures. When combined with typical smoke (as in this image) such hot spots mark actively burning fire.
Two small clusters of hot spots in the west, which are producing little smoke, belong to the Cerro Pelado fire, which has consumed 43,376 acres since it ignited on April 22 near Jemez Springs. As of May 15, it was only 11 percent contained and had been under a Red Flag Warning for five days in a row. Gusty south-southwest winds combined with low relative humidity continue to lead to critical fire weather conditions as more than 1,000 personnel fight this blaze.
To the east of that blaze, dozens of hot spots mark the multiple actively burning edges of the expansive Calf Creek and Hermits Creek Fire complex. The Calf Canyon fire began on April 19, and the cause is under investigation. On April 6, the Hermits Peak fire began as a prescribed burn in part of the Sant Fe National Forest, but erratic, gusty winds blew it out of control. Strong winds on April 22-23 pushed the fire through steep terrain and caused a merger with the Calf Canyon fire, creating a fire complex with more than 180 miles of perimeter. On May 2, the fire complex had scorched 120,653 acres in size. By May 7, it had grown to 170,665 acres. Just four days later, on May 11, the area burned reached 236,939 acres—an additional 66,274 acres—despite the efforts of 1,863 personnel currently fighting the fire. The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fire complex is now the second-largest fire in New Mexico history, just behind the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire which scorched 297,845 acres in the Gila National Forest in 2012.
A third fire, the Cooks Creek Fire, sits to the northeast of the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fire complex. It may be adding to the thick plume of smoke, but it is also obscured from view by that plume. The fire ignited on April 17 and has burned 59,359 acres of ponderosa pine, oak brush, and grass. On May 11 it reached 97 percent containment.
A May 11 briefing to fire personnel noted that April 2022 was the second-driest April in northern New Mexico since 1895. This extremely dry month, on top of an extended drought in the region, has combined with high temperatures, low humidity, and strong, gusty winds to create critical fire conditions. Unfortunately, the weather forecast does not offer much relief. A Red Flag Warning will continue through at least May 12, with maximum sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph and gusts to 40-45 mph. Maximum temperatures are expected to be in the mid-60s to the mid-70s Fahrenheit in the lower elevations. Minimum relative humidity values will be 5 to 14 percent.