• Image 1 of 26

Wind, Wildfire, Water: Witnessing Climate Change in my Back Yard

Susan Ressler | New Mexico, United States

Prophetic Rainbow during New Mexico monsoons, after wind and fire events, Taos, NM, July 2022.

The rainbow's arc looks as if it's filled with fire, containing the still smoldering flames from the largest fire in New Mexico State history for now. The fire burned across more than 500 miles and destroyed hundreds of homes. As reported in "Time" magazine: "Evacuations have displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage. Fear of flames is giving way to concern about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fire penetrated soil and roots." And those concerns were prophetic, as at the present time, floods are carrying debris and ash into water, homes and land, prompting more evacuations. The color of this photograph has not been manipulated; it was late in the day and the intense orange glow gave a strange hue to everything it touched.

Taos, New Mexico is exemplary of small town America. With a population of fewer than 6,000 souls, what keeps it on the map is its art historical legacy and world class skiing. I've lived here since the mid-1980s, so you'd think I'd know what to expect. But climate change has turned life here upside down, and this short photo essay tells that story.

On December 15, 2021, an extreme wind event decimated our forests, killing hundreds of thousands of healthy trees in one fell swoop, literally. Then on April 6, 2022, the largest wildfire in state history ignited. Now almost contained (but not out), after torching almost 350,000 acres of pristine wilderness and the homes and traditions of all who lived in its path, the annual monsoon rains have arrived. Floods have replaced fire, and it is clear to me that these catastrophes are climate-caused.

It took me a while to realize that my home, my spiritual sanctuary, is now under siege. This is my story, and these photographs document the impact of climate change on the land I cherish.

 

On December 15, 2021, an extreme wind event decimated the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, killing hundreds of thousands of healthy trees in one fell swoop, literally. Tall pines and firs were split like matchsticks by the 100 mph winds in the mountains. Then, on April 6, 2022, the largest wildfire in state history ignited. It rapidly spread and merged with another fire to become the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak Fire, and earned the dubious distinction of also being the largest wildfire then burning in the United States. New Mexico was declared a federal disaster area and even President Biden personally visited to survey the damage. Now almost fully contained (but not out) after torching almost 350,000 acres, scientists say what was, arguably, one of the most pristine and beautiful wilderness areas in the world will never fully recover. The fire was so hot that it sterilized the soil. With drought and desertification well underway, new plants will grow, but the mixed conifer forest has been destroyed. The burn scar is enormous, and now that the monsoon rains have arrived, so have destructive floods. Wind, wildfire, and water are now the new norm. Climate change is here and all of the American West, as well as the globe, is suffering the consequences.

In this photo-essay I show the after-effects of what has happened. When the wind tore through the mountains and howled at my house, I was holding my breath and my cat tight in bed. I show no video of the actual event, only the carnage that was visible after. The same is true of the wildfire. Evacuatioons of thousands of people were taking place only 30 miles from me, but I was relatively safe. I saw the smoke and the pyro-cumulous clouds that loomed over downtown Taos, and I breathed that acrid stench of toxic smoke, but I photographed only the effects. We've all seen images of towering flames, and maybe I show something different, like an eery rainbow full of orange fire when those in the flames' path were facing the floods.

This photo-essay ends with a trek on my favorite trail, Gavilan, that follows one of the drainages off the Taos Ski Valley in the Carson National Forest. It was only 5 miles up and back to a beautiful mountain meadow at 10,400 feet. It still looks relatively untouched at the top, but this hike took me past downed trees and through decimated forest. Even tall aspens were bowed and snapped. The Forest Service crews have salvaged the trails by cutting and clearing the biggest trees. But no-one can bring them back to life.

I hope by looking at this microcosm of America here in Taos, New Mexico, we will wake up and tackle climate change head on. It is the most pressing problem in the world, and here in my back yard, you can see the evidence.

Content loading...

Make Comment/View Comments