May 28—Extreme drought conditions gripping most of New Mexico, rising temperatures and heavy gusts that continue to batter the state are not just raising the risk of another raging wildfire but also are putting the squeeze on outdoor recreation.
The city of Santa Fe announced it would close its hiking trails Saturday, the latest in a long list of public spaces to be put off-limits to the public ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.
"We're dealing with an extraordinary situation," Mayor Alan Webber said Wednesday at a City Council meeting about the emergency closures. "Not just from the fires that already are surrounding us, but the inadvertent activity that could spark a fire within the city."
Webber said the council will convene for a special meeting Tuesday to extend a proclamation ordering the closures, which align with recently announced state, federal and county shutdowns of forests and open spaces that are a draw for hikers, mountain bikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts — especially over a long holiday weekend.
"My summer hiking in New Mexico may have, for the most part, come to an end," said Brian Garrity, board president of the New Mexico Mountain Club. "I would say that's true for a lot of people."
Trail closures throughout New Mexico have interfered with recent activities planned by the group's more than 800 members, he said.
While he supports the trail closures, Garrity said, they are likely going to push local hikers, bikers and climbers to Utah and Colorado.
The city closures include the Dale Ball Trails, accessed from Hyde Park, Cerro Gordo and Upper Canyon roads and Camino de Cruz Blanca. The Sun Mountain Trail and La Tierra Trails also will close, along with the BMX trails at La Tierra and the Municipal Recreation Complex.
City trailheads will be marked with closed signs and, in some places, rope, according to a news release. Those who violate the rules will receive warnings followed by citations with penalties of up to $500.
It's the first time in recent memory the city has decided on such extensive measures to reduce wildfire risks, fire Chief Brian Moya said. He noted an increase in brush fires over the last week within city limits, compared to the last several months.
A tree ignited Wednesday night on a trail off Hyde Park Road, he said. Off St. Francis Drive and Siringo Road, half an acre burned as well. It brought the count to six brush fires in recent days.
If the relative humidity improves in Santa Fe, Moya said, the trails are likely to reopen.
But the National Weather Service in Albuquerque isn't anticipating any significant precipitation across the drought-stricken Rio Grande Valley, including in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, until late next week, when storms are set to arrive Thursday afternoon.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed for that," meteorologist Randall Hergert said Friday. "It's unfortunately dry through the weekend."
Drought conditions — the culmination of a historic 20-year megadrought that's been brewing since the mid-1990s — have worsened significantly statewide since April, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Over 90 percent of the state is in at least extreme drought, including all of Santa Fe County, and nearly half the state is in "exceptional" drought — the highest level.
While it's difficult to pin any specific fire or weather event on climate change, National Weather Service hydrologist Andrew Mangham said the overall patterns are clear.
"The climate pattern is leading to hotter, drier conditions in the Southwest," he said. "The overall long-term pattern we're in is starting to lead to really, really volatile conditions."
It's not a problem that will be resolved by rain next week alone.
"If we got into a good, healthy monsoon season with repeated rounds of precipitation, it would certainly relieve the drought to a certain extent," Mangham said. "We need more than just a season of good rain; we need more than just a few good rainstorms."
Moya said city trails will remain closed in these dire conditions because some areas are difficult to access, which could hamper a quick response if a fire ignited.
"These are trails in remote areas of town where my firetrucks can't get close to," he said. "That's why we're closing these trails."
He added the city has banned the sale and use of fireworks and open burning.
Smoking in public parks, recreation areas and public trails also is banned. Use of charcoal grills in public parks is prohibited as well, along with campfires, bonfires and pit barbecues.
Bill Tefft, manager of the nonprofit Public Lands Information Center, said he has received calls from visitors to the area who are "desperate" to know where they can go to get outdoors for the Memorial Day weekend. The trail closures, he added, are likely leading to a drop in local outdoor tourism.
The organization collaborates with government agencies and provides visitor information about public lands. Visits to its center on Dinosaur Trail in Santa Fe have fallen since late April, Tefft noted.
He said most of the federal Bureau of Land Management land in New Mexico, which largely is flat and has sparse vegetation, remains open for recreation under fire restrictions.
Tefft, who issues reports on public land closures, said the frequency of his reports has increased this year.
"Some years, reports come out every week," he said. "This year, it's just one place after another — kind of like dominoes falling."