At first I noticed a gray tint to the otherwise crystal-blue sky. I had an errand to run so I was heading south thinking about a short shopping list and a quick visit to my doctor’s office. All that was behind me in about an hour so I headed back home. It seemed like an ordinary day. Then I saw the trail of smoke heading northeast from just over the mesa ridge and streaming toward the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Somehow I missed it until then. There was a fire in the Jemez Mountains…again. Once I got a clear view it looked like it was deep in the mountains…not on the south flanks or foothills. Sometimes the Pueblo farmers burn off debris in their fields but this looked bigger and more dangerous and most likely in the Caldera.
Valles Caldera sits in the middle of the Jemez Mountains. Once upon a time, 1.2 million years ago, there was a super volcano there that would have occupied the horizon…a tremendous landmark. It erupted with stupendous force throwing vast amounts of ash and debris into the sky. Super-heated pyroclastic flows raced down the slopes engulfing the surrounding countryside. The Jemez Mountains had seen this before. This was not the first eruption or even the first super volcano to rise in these mountains. Geologists say that this eruption was one of many. As the magma chamber beneath the volcano emptied the immense bulk of the volcano, fractured by faults and repeated shock, collapsed into the chamber spewing out fire and rock for miles around. This would have been a global event at the time.
These days it is a lot calmer up in the Jemez Mountains. The last eruption, a minor obsidian flow, took place some sixty-thousand years ago. There are still a few hot springs and fumaroles and gas vents. There is still heat down below but in comparison to past events this is a peaceful place. Peaceful until fire breaks out — and it does all too often. There is a dangerous fire in the Jemez Mountains almost every year. Some are smallish but still do damage. Some, like the Conchas Fire, are huge and almost legendary. The Conchas fire reached the edge of Los Alamos and burned through Bandelier National Monument and clear to the floor of Valles Caldera. Burn scars last a lifetime — in memory if not in the landscape.
The fire I saw that day was at the Valles Caldera. It started as a “controlled burn” and, even though it looked out of control the forest service and firefighters had it quickly contained.
I was just up at the Caldera a week before enjoying the fall weather…my second visit in as many months. The Valles Caldera has been part of the NPS for a while as a natural preserve and is popular with local hunters (Elk) and fly-fisherman. It gets about 120,000 visits a year. The TV series Longmire is filmed there as have a number of other movies. It is much larger than what meets the eye. The floor of the caldera is thirteen miles across and appears to be a huge meadow but that is only one of several meadows and there are minor lava-dome peaks rising out of the meadows. Redondo Peak, the highest summit of the Jemez Mountains, rises to 11, 254 feet but lies entirely within the caldera. Here are a few pictures of the Valles Caldera just from the entry road to the visitor center.
The fire that day turned out to be a false alarm but everyone gets concerned when we see a plume of smoke pouring out of the mountains. We’ve seen it before. This is largely desert country — often brown and dry when the rains are few and far between. The Jemez Mountains are an oasis of green.
There is a Pulitzer-winning PBS documentary titled “Sky Island” narrated by N. Scott Momaday and Meryl Streep that offers a love-letter to, and about, the Jemez Mountains.
The Jemez Mountains are a precious resource always on the edge of possible disaster from wildfire or from over use. Fire damage is obvious whenever you go very far into the mountains. The Jemez Pueblo people have successfully lived there for hundreds of years but climate change and carelessness might take a serious toll.
There are other “Sky Islands” in the New Mexico desert country. The Jemez Mountains are relatively green and moist, if not wet. There is a transition zone going south from the Jemez into the extreme northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert. If you travel only about 130 miles due south you will encounter the Sierra Ladrones — the Outlaw Mountains. These are much seldom visited and a much dryer landscape. They are a little bit wilder and maybe even forbidding. The sprawling Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge encompasses part of the mountains but it is hard to get very close let alone actually into the Sierra Ladrones. The BLM is considering a wilderness area designation for part of the mountains and there are a few, largely undeveloped, hiking trails..
If you are around Socorro, NM, with a day to kill there is a sixty mile gravel road that goes from Contreras to Magdalena around the back side of the Sierra Ladrones. Take water if you go. You probably will see wildlife and a few cows but not many people. Another option is to explore the hoodoos and slot canyon of the San Lorenzo Canyon area on the south edge of the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge (accessible from Lemitar, NM). Needless to say, there are no facilities and even the road can be a challenge.
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The Home Place — 2018