What’s That in the Distance?

Tracking down a smoke plume found by accident on Google Maps.

So I was on Google Maps exploring the area around Kirtland AFB, looking for any trace of the hydrogen bomb that was accidentally dropped on New Mexico in 1957 (that’s a story for another time) when I rotated the camera around and saw that massive smoke plume in the distance. This was obviously something unusual and worthy of a little investigation.

So how do you track down a wildfire?

I’ll be referring back to a few different parts of this screenshot, so keep it handy.

First, we need to know where to look.

When I stumbled across this, I (I’m going to be using “I” and “the Google StreetView camera position” interchangeably from now on) was just to the west of Kirtland, in what looks to be a new development of some kind.

Using the minimap in the lower-left corner, we can see that we’re facing roughly east. If I had to guess, I’d say our heading is somewhere near 100 (degrees).

Next, we need the when. Luckily, this one is simple.

Down in the bottom-right is a “Image capture” field that gives us a rough idea of when the picture was taken.

Now, we need to put it all together. We know we’re looking for a wildfire that was burning during June of 2016, somewhere to the east or southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

While you could just Google this, it might be a little more interesting to use CalTopo to try to find the fire. Using the CalTopo map is going to take a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of navigating (or just searching for landmarks), have a look at the “Map Layers” on the right. Specifically, the “Fire History” layer is the one that’s going to help the most here.

As soon as we activate it – bang! – we get our answer.

It was the Dog Head fire.

Weird name, right? Wildfires are generally named after a road or other geographic feature closest to their point of origin. By this logic, we’d be looking for a road somewhere in here named “Dog Head”… but there isn’t one.

You might have to zoom in on this one.

There’s a stream nearby named “CaƱada de la Perra”, which translates to “Bitch Glen“. It’s not quite what we were looking for, and certainly not the kind of name you’d put on a postcard, but it’s close enough. Besides, “the Dog Head fire” has a better ring to it than “the Indian Service Route 59 fire”.

Now we can Google the fire. Doing so will eventually lead you to the official USDA report on the fire (the US Forest Service is part of the USDA). The report isn’t the riveting page-turner I was hoping it would be, but does answer the question I’m sure you’re dying to ask: how did the fire start?

It (probably) started when a masticator struck a rock.

A crew was working on thinning out vegetation in the forest to prevent any hypothetical fires in the area from burning too intensely. The machine they were using to shred bushes and trees into mulch hit a rock (probably) which created a spark (probably) that touched off some nearby dry brush. From there, the fire quickly took off. The three-person crew operating the masticator had some equipment capable of fighting the fire, but weren’t able to use it due to how quickly the fire grew and spread.

The fire eventually burned 17,913 acres, destroyed 12 homes and 44 other structures, but – thankfully – resulted in no deaths.

And there you have it. Now you (and I) know more than you even thought you’d need to know about the Dog Head fire that scorched through the Manzano Mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico in June, 2016.