When the waitress takes our lunch order, the sky outside the Rodeo Grocery & Café is blue. But in the time it takes to power through a smothered burrito, the Chiracahua Mountains to the west have disappeared. The wind has changed, and smoke from the Horseshoe Two fire pours from the canyon, turning the sky here in southwestern New Mexico a thick yellow and scenting the two-hour drive north to the Gila National Forest with smoke.
This spring, I’ve traveled in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and the Dakotas. Everywhere, the symptoms of climate change have been obvious, whether in the form of flood or drought. In early June, however, I need a few days to quiet my mind from its spin around the environmental issues I report. I’m seeking refuge.
It’s dry even in the Gila this year; runoff from snowmelt is about a quarter of average. But we wade in the East Fork of the Gila River, inspecting the damp, cool soil beneath riverbank rocks for hellgrammites, tasting mint from an island in the river and checking out the algae streaming below the water’s surface.
Later, we drive past a burn scar from the Miller fire that someone sparked at the end of April. Peering from the edge of the Heart Bar Wildlife Management Area, we can see how the fire has scoured out the underbrush, but also streaked the trunks of conifers and cottonwoods black. The pines will be fine, but the cottonwoods growing at the banks of the river can’t withstand that heat.
The next evening, the sun glows pinkish-red over Lake Roberts, near Mimbres. A game warden passes through with a young, cinnamon-colored black bear he has darted for relocation. With the forests crackling dry, bears come into town seeking food to sustain themselves. Asleep with a tag in his ear, the bear likely doesn’t have a long life ahead of him.
The smoke clears for Saturday morning’s Aldo Leopold Kids Fishing Derby. But just before rush hour the night after we return home, smoke from Arizona’s Wallow fire billows across the West Mesa and into Albuquerque. After a week of this smoke—of adjusting my daily schedule around winds and forecasts—it becomes routine.
Then one Sunday afternoon, I call my young daughter to the north side of the house and point out a cloud I think signals the coming monsoon season. But after she’s gone to bed, I learn the cloud we celebrated was a pyrocumulus cloud spawned by the Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos. The next morning, I have to admit my mistake and explain how very big fires—fires that grow almost 44,000 acres in a single day—can sometimes create clouds that resemble thunderheads.
This is the new normal, and I must re-evaluate what I thought I knew as fact before explaining the world to my 5-year-old.
Right now, New Mexico is warmer than it was a decade ago. Since the 1960s, the growing season has lengthened. More than half of the state’s native plants and animals have already been affected by climate change; some bird populations have shifted; some flowers bloom earlier. Sand dunes are spreading as vegetation dies. Conifer forests, weakened by drought and susceptible to bark beetles (whose numbers soared thanks to warmer temperatures) are suffering die-offs. Day to day, we have low river flows, dry soils and wildfires. Already this fiscal year, 1,242 square miles of New Mexico have burned. Worldwide, scientists are watching their models and predictions play out—and we’re all experiencing symptoms no one expected.