Wednesday night, my cousin JP’s wife called my mom to let her know they have been allowed back in and that they, their horses and dogs are all safe, sound and back home.   The fact that she was able to call means cell phone service has been restored, and evidently the power is also back on.  They did not suffer any property loss.  Unfortunately, 224 other families were not so lucky.

According to this article from the KQRE website, “Firefighters appear to have a handle on the 38,000-acre [58+ sq.mi.] blaze although significant flames continue to erupt inside, and in some places along, the perimeter.  Containment of the blaze now sits at 45 percent, and the majority of the evacuees who still have a home are being let back into them.”  The DC-10 tanker which had been on standby in Mesa, AZ, was called in on Wednesday, June 13, and was employed on the western edge of the fire, dropping 11,600 gallons in each sortie.

My cousin lives southwest of Capitan, NM, (in the upper right corner of the above map) within the triangle formed by NM Highway 37 on the west, NM Highway 48 on the east (the grey line leading down from the “C” in “Capitan” in the upper right-hand corner) and US Highway 380 on the north.  In the map above (© 2012 Google Maps), NM Highway 220 is labeled “Airport Road.”   Moving in an arc to the left of NM 220, is NM 48 and NM 37.

The map below is a more detailed view, with all the highways labeled, and Capitan, NM, indicated by the “A” tag.  The green areas indicate parts of the Lincoln National Forest. (map © Google Maps) At one point, NM 48 was closed, but it is now open.

The following photos are from KQRE.com.

Looking west from Ruidoso, NM, night of June 8, Photo by Alexander Mazon.

Looking south down NM 37, June 10, Photo by Stella Harris.

Smoke seen from NM 48, June 10, Photo by Stella Harris

Little Bear Fire, June 11.  Photo by Dave Schultz

Smoke advancing, June 10. Photo by Blupast

This is fairly rugged country, which hampers fire fighting efforts.  The southwestern United States is subject to cyclical droughts, with periodic severe droughts (we’re having one now, in fact), and lightening-triggered wildfires are part of the ecology in this area. Many species of grasses, shrubs and trees (which are mainly conifers and ponderosa pine species) actually take advantage of wildfires to  clear out the underbrush and give them “elbow room.”  In fact, the cones of some species of conifers won’t open to allow the seeds to disburse until they are burned.

Progression of Little Bear Wildfire, June 14, Photo courtesy Lincoln National Forest.

Dendrochronology or “tree ring dating” is a common archaeological tool for dating prehistoric occupation sites throughout the southwest, and tree ring data clearly shows that this cyclical drought pattern has existed for thousands of years, influencing not only the ecology but the people who have inhabited this area since prehistoric times.  Wildfires are a fact of life out here, just as floods are a fact of life in the Mississippi River drainage basin.  Ironically, as our “monsoon” season is approaching, officials will begin sandbagging efforts to prevent flooding in the areas denuded by the fire.

Map © 2012 Google Maps

Unfortunately, the Little Bear Wildfire is not the only fire currently blazing in the southwestern United States.   There are three wildfires in the state of New Mexico alone.  The Whitewater-Baldy fire (63% contained) in the Gila National Forest has been blazing since May 16th and has consumed 290,127 acres. It’s going to be a long, hot summer.

DC-10 drops fire retardant on Gila National Forest blaze in New Mexico on June 1 Photo © MSNBC.com