Monsoon rains cause floods, but fewer wildfires, in New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE N.M. Fri Aug 1, 2014 3:54pm EDT

ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - In normally drought-stricken New Mexico, near-historic levels of monsoon rains this month caused a sharp rise in flash flood warnings, but have dampened the risk of devastating wildfires, experts said on Friday.

The city of Albuquerque saw a total of 3.4 inches of rain in July, the highest level recorded for the month since 1930 when 4.45 inches fell.

Coming on the back of three years of severe drought, the downpours have washed out dozens of roads, and even a section of the Union Pacific railroad tracks south of Santa Rosa.

"This is the third wettest July on record," said Don Shoemaker, spokesman for the National Weather Service's office in Albuquerque. "We have also seen a significant rise in flash floods."

The National Weather Service has needed to put out more than 400 flood advisories for northern and central New Mexico since January, with 300 of them issued in July alone. So far there have been no reports of flashflood fatalities this year.

That was thanks in part to the state's fire departments, which Shoemaker said train specifically for fast-water rescues in areas such as the arroyos, or creeks, that surround Albuquerque.

New Mexico's monsoon season runs from mid-June to mid-Sept, and then the spigots shut off unless there is a significant snow fall in the winter.

Experts say a saving grace of the particularly heavy recent rains is that there have been fewer of the wildfires that typically ravage the state's parched national forests each year.

Bill King, district fire officer for the Jemez Ranger District in the Santa Fe National Forest, said the wildfire risk was lowered at the end of July, from extreme in June, and that the rains meant the U.S. Forest Service has been able to divert resources from New Mexico to fires in Washington and Nevada.

The last big wildfire in the state was the Diego Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, which burned some 3,500 acres in late June, King said.

"In July we had a few localized fires that didn't spread," he added. "We've seen a lot of lightening which caused some fires which were quickly contained."

(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)

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