Home Fire News 16,000 people evacuated, national disaster declared as New Mexico wildfire grows

16,000 people evacuated, national disaster declared as New Mexico wildfire grows


Rick Ruggles

The Santa Fe New Mexican

The biggest wildfire burning in the country is about to enter weather conditions that could propel it to greater destruction.Fire and weather officials this week have expressed their concern over the effect high winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions could have on fires in New Mexico. Some have used the term “potentially historic fire weather” to describe the next few days. They don’t want people to underestimate it.

The test begins Saturday, when difficult conditions arrive in Northern New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said 16,000 homes in the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire area have been evacuated — moves that have affected between 30,000 and 40,000 people, largely in San Miguel and Mora counties.

Residents of Las Vegas, N.M., threatened by the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire worried about what could happen in the next few days.

Updates Friday show the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire at 168,009 acres with 20 percent containment, and the Cerro Pelado Fire at 32,121 acres with 13 percent containment.

“Yeah, it smells smoky, and it looks smoky,” said Andrea Gottschalk, owner of Unikat Fine Jewelry in Las Vegas. Gottschalk said she has friends who have left town already.

Phillip Martinez, president of the Las Vegas-San Miguel Chamber of Commerce, said people long to enjoy their community again.

“It’s just a disaster for us,” Martinez said. “It is scary because a lot of residents have left, and some have lost their homes.”

But people already are talking about how to get back to business as usual, he added, and “there is hope here.”

Even a long way from Las Vegas, there is concern because the winds of the next few days portend the potential for trouble in nearly every part of the state.

On New Mexico’s Eastern Plains, Curry County Fire Chief David Kube said Friday afternoon he received a call from a state forester encouraging him to get the word out about how serious these conditions could be.

Kube said in his area two fires this spring have started because of the sparks and heat from welding projects. And the windy weather coming, he said, is “a little more critical than usual.”

He said the message he will send to the citizens in his area is: “Really, think about what you’re doing and have some common sense. Complacency is probably the moral of the story.”

The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire, which started as two and merged to create one large fire near Las Vegas, is by far the biggest going in the United States right now, the National Interagency Fire Center reported.

Todd Abel, an operations section chief for that fire, said Friday containment efforts to block it from moving east to Las Vegas and to the south were “looking awesome.” Later in the day, he expressed wariness about the fire near Mineral Hill, west of the city.

But his generally positive assessment came with the caveat about trouble in the forecast — a wind system expected to arrive Saturday that will produce “some of the harshest firefighting conditions that I’ve seen” in three decades. In a Friday night briefing, a forecaster said he expects at least 35 straight hours of red flag warnings.

Abel is among many firefighting experts and meteorologists who say swaths of the state will experience high wind, gusts and heat beginning Saturday and persisting for a few days.

Those conditions with parched vegetation and dry atmosphere, they say, are horrible for containing fires.

Crews spent Friday continuing to build lines around the fire, hoping they will withstand what’s to come.

“Will it test to the wind? said Dave Bales, incident commander for the fire.

In the meantime, law enforcement officials reiterated the need for those still in the fire zone to evacuate, fearing another run of fire.

Other fires, such as Cooks Peak, showed excellent containment while the Bear Trap and Water fires in the southwest quadrant of the state were comparatively small. The national fire agency said another, the Turkey Fire, had burned about 1,000 acres in the Gila National Forest, 22 miles southeast of Reserve.

Eleven wildfires currently burn in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Florida, the National Interagency Fire Center said. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire was by far the largest, followed by Cooks Peak and Cerro Pelado, all in Northern New Mexico.

Abel said vigorous efforts were taking place around the perimeter of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire to contain it with bulldozing and other techniques. That work is going on near Holman, Chacon and other communities north and northeast of the fire.

“They’re going to be working in that area hard today,” Abel said Friday. He said crews also are trying to protect houses and other structures with bulldozer lines and by removing the fuels that give the fire life.

Mike De Fries, a spokesman at the incident command post in Las Vegas, said by telephone Friday the harsh wind expected over the next four days or more have the capacity to send out sparks that could ignite new fires.

“Don’t drag chains,” he said, warning of the friction and sparks it causes. “Be smart.”

In her briefing, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said those affected by the fire can immediately apply for federal assistance. The aid, she added, would come in the form of cash deposits into checking accounts for up to $500 and could arrive as early as next week.

Lujan Grisham acknowledged the initial process to get those requests going will be “bumpy” and said the state and federal government are working on ways to help people who do not have computers access Federal Emergency Management Agency aid.

That aid will include mortgage assistance for those who lost homes in the fire, funding for house rehabilitation and sharing information on housing options for those displaced by the fires.

Soon, seven four-person teams of FEMA staffers will set up shop in community centers near or at the fire sites to offer personal assistance and guidance for people looking for help, she said.

“We want to know where you are and how we can help you,” she said, urging residents to register at that FEMA website as soon as possible.

Noting some students have had their education disrupted by the fires, Lujan Grisham said “children can go to school anywhere in the state” and added efforts are underway to help transfer students to schools in other districts, at least temporarily. They are working on identifying “satellite education locations” for students in the Las Vegas area, she said.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind we will have a significant behavioral health issue,” because of the fire and the continuing effects of the pandemic. She said she wants to see a network of behavioral health sites in schools, community and health centers, and shelters, but she hasn’t yet “carved out” that plan.

Robert Nott contributed to this report.


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