Black Fire Blows Up in New Mexico – Produces Pyrocumulonimbus Cloud and Crosses Continental Divide

May 21, 2022. Natural color. (Click image for wide, high-resolution view.)

The speed and intensity of the Black fire grew quickly, producing a pyrocumulonimbus cloud and crossing the Continental Divide, to become the second-largest fire in the state of New Mexico.

A raging new wildfire erupted in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico on May 13, 2022. The state has seen more than half a million acres burned this year in early season wildland fires, and forecasters predicted conditions could worsen through the end of the month.

The Black fire began burning in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area in the Black Range, about 30 miles (48 km) northwest of the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. On May 16, the fire blew up, tripling in size from 18,000 acres to more than 56,000 acres. A blow-up is a sudden increase in fire intensity or rate of spread. The blow-up of the Black fire on May 16 produced a small pyrocumulonimbus cloud as the fire ran east and crossed the Continental Divide.

May 21, 2022. False color. (Click image for wide, high-resolution view.)

As of May 22, the Black fire had burned more than 130,000 acres, becoming the second-largest fire burning in the state. The perimeter was 8 percent contained, with more than 600 firefighters working the blaze.

These images, acquired on May 21, 2022, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, show the area burned by the Black fire in both natural and false color. The false-color image combines shortwave infrared, near infrared, and visible light (OLI bands 7-5-2). Near and shortwave infrared help penetrate clouds and smoke (gray-white) to reveal the hotspots associated with active fires (red). With this combination, burned areas appear reddish-brown.

The Black fire is one of several large uncontained fires burning in New Mexico, including the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire. As of May 23, 2022, that fire had exceeded 300,000 acres—the largest in state history—and was 40 percent contained. New Mexico has had more than 300 fires so far in 2022, burning more than 580,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). That is nearly five times as much acreage as was burned in all of 2021.

The Southwest is in the midst of a two-decade megadrought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, on May 19, at least 85 percent of New Mexico was experiencing extreme to exceptional drought.

According to a Fuels and Fire Behavior Advisory released by NIFC on May 18, “expanding drought conditions coupled with very hot and dry weather, extreme wind events, and unstable atmospheric conditions have led to explosive fire behavior in the region.” In parts of Arizona and New Mexico, “conditions like this have not been seen since the mid-1950s.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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