photography from the ground up

The Birth of a Monster (The Las Conchas Fire) Part 1

On Sunday, June 26th I was at the Valle Grande Staging Area of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. I had taken a seasonal position working for the preserve. It was pretty much like any other day, except for the wind, the relentless wind, which was gusting up to 60 mph. A little after one o’clock, one of my co-workers rushed into the visitor’s center to announce that a fire had broken out at the Las Conchas Trailhead. Las Conchas is a popular spot; the East Fork of the Jemez River flows into a narrow slot before it continues on through high country meadows and finally plunges through a series of pools in a steep canyon. The natural thing was to suspect that someone had disregarded the closure of the Santa Fe National Forest-due to extreme fire danger, and had left a campfire unattended, or tossed a cigarette into the dry grass. It wouldn’t have been the first time (investigators would later discover that the fire was the result of an aspen tree, blown over by the wind, falling on a power line).

We all went out onto the porch to see what we could see. Las Conchas is about three miles west of the Valle Grande and, sure enough, there was a telltale plume of white smoke. Maybe I was being naive, or maybe I just didn’t want to believe it, whatever the reason, I told myself it was nothing to worry about–they would jump on it and it would be out before it had a chance to do any real damage. But then we watched as the fire started up the side of Los Griegos (a prominent feature on the rim of the caldera) and suddenly moved across the mountain as if someone had painted the flames with a brush.

Seven hours later I stood on my friend Robin’s deck and made this image of the smoke and evaporation cloud of what was now being called the Las Conchas fire. Because of the extremely dry conditions after a winter and spring during which we had had no appreciable moisture, the fire grew from its source and by the time I took this photo, it had consumed four thousand acres. By the end of the day, that number would increase tenfold. Driven by the wind at first and then, later, by the collapse of a smoke plume which had risen thousands of feet into the air (imagine dust bunnies scattering after a book has been dropped flat on the floor), the fire grew in all directions, consuming everything in its path: timber, wildlife, homes…

By Friday the fire had grown to nearly one hundred thousand acres and had become an organic presence. I made this image from the road which leads to Redondo Meadow where the initial Incident Command Post was. The large smoke plume was the result of the fire spreading onto Cerro Santa Rosa and consuming a fresh fuel supply.

As the days went by the residents of the nearby communities became used to waking in the morning to a smoke shrouded sky. The sun shown red through the haze and, at times the fire seemed too close for comfort.

I made this image looking up San Diego Canyon north of Jemez Springs a little over a week after the Las Conchas fire burst into our home and our lives.


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