‘Multiple disasters all in one day’: New Mexico’s brutal week of fire and flood

<span>Smoke rises from fires in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on 17 June 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Pam Bonner/AP</span>
Smoke rises from fires in Ruidoso, New Mexico, on 17 June 2024.Photograph: Pam Bonner/AP

It’s been a harrowing week of fire and flood in New Mexico. Just days after a pair of fast-moving fires roared across drought-stricken landscapes and into communities, a tropical storm swirled north, unleashing downpours and golf ball-sized hail over scorched slopes that had only just burned.

As the dueling dangers of two weather extremes converged, charred debris flowed into neighborhoods, crews were temporarily evacuated from the fire fight as emergency officials pivoted from fire support to flood rescues, and strong winds swept up dried soils to create one of the largest dust storms the state has ever seen.

Across the arid south-west, where fire risks typically rise with the temperatures in the spring before they are doused in a summer monsoon, weather patterns like these aren’t unheard of. But the climate crisis has supercharged extreme conditions, setting the stage for new types of catastrophes that are increasing in both intensity and frequency.

Related: ‘The sky was on fire’: New Mexico villagers flee two deadly wildfires

When they overlap, the dangers grow.

“We are used to these disasters, but I don’t think this agency has ever dealt with anything like this,” said Dr Jeremy Klass, the recovery and mitigation bureau chief of New Mexico’s department of homeland security and emergency management. “We are dealing with two disasters right on top of one another.”

The South Fork and Salt fires are still burning and remain at 0% containment and communities across the south of the state are bracing for more rain. After erupting on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, the blazes burned hot and fast, sweeping across more than 23,400 areas collectively and leveling neighborhoods.

An estimated 1,400 structures have been lost to the flames, according to officials who are still finishing the grim tallies of burned buildings, and at least two people died while fleeing the fires. Meanwhile, roughly 8,000 people have been displaced, as they await the news of what will remain when they are allowed to return.

While the infusion of moisture from Tropical Storm Alberto – the first named storm in what’s expected to be a heavy hurricane season – helped slow the fires’ spread and bumped local humidity, it also caused chaos. Emergency management crews had to quickly shift gears from fire support to water rescues as curtains of rain inundated the burn scar. Up to 8in of rain poured on villages in the central part of New Mexico – more rainfall than some parts of the state typically see in a year.

Fire crews had to be temporarily evacuated from the fire line for their safety as the storm hit, according to officials, and then rushed to try to mitigate the risks of more debris flows. “On most fires, we get through the fire phase and can secure things before storms start to hit,” Arthur Gonzalez, a fire behavior analyst on the incident team, said during a community meeting on Thursday, explaining that there are usually weeks to prepare for such an event. “We are having to do both at the same time.”

As first responders and officials grappled with a chaotic mix of conditions, the wild weather had one more curveball to throw at New Mexico: the gusty winds kicked up a wall of dust that stretched hundreds of miles long.

The dust storm, known as a “haboob,” rapidly clouded visibility across major highways as it swept across New Mexico and into Arizona. Ali Rye, the state director of New Mexico’s department of homeland security and emergency management, said she’d spent Thursday morning trying to support recovery efforts from the fires and floods when she got the call that there was a 20-car pile up that shut down the interstate. Fifty people were injured in the accident.

“It is multiple disasters all in one day,” she said, adding that the overlap has made each more traumatizing for impacted communities.

It’s part of a troubling trend. By Rye’s tally, the number of state-declared disasters in New Mexico has quadrupled since 2019. “We are seeing an increase in the impacts to our state in various ways and it has become increasingly challenging over the last couple of years,” she said. “And we are not out of the clear yet.”

The threats are only going to rise as the world continues to warm.

While it will take time for scientists to better understand whether this week’s events are tied to the climate crisis, “temperatures are easily attributable to climate change”, said Dr Andrew Hoell, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa).

Broiling weather across the south-west has baked more moisture out of landscapes and plants, accelerating drought and increasing wildfire risks. It also dried the top soils that are carried by winds to create dust storms.

New Mexico has been in the grips of a severe drought and conditions are only expected to intensify through the end of the summer, even with the monsoons. “That’s the lingering long term drought over the area,” said the state climatologist, Dr David DuBois, who added that record-high temperatures have taken a toll. “We have had 11 days over 100F already – and it’s still June.”

DuBois said the state is preparing for a flip to monsoon season, when there will be more rain and more risks to burn scars, but the tropical storm that blew north this week was unexpected. There are hopes that, even with the negative impacts from the rain, the wetter weather will help quiet fire activity and give crews what they need to corral the blazes. But it’s expected to do little to relieve the longterm dryness.

“We have had some really good bumps of rain, but it is lost through higher temperatures,” DuBois said. “One season doesn’t change the whole situation – that’s what’s on my mind. We may get a bunch of rain but then it goes back to really dry again.”