Residents Worry About Fire Burning Near Northeast New Mexico City

Martina Gonzales and her grandson watched from the front yard as aircraft disappeared in a gigantic plume of smoke to fight a growing wildfire that has scorched hundreds of square kilometers, destroyed some 170 homes and threatens more destruction if the weekend winds blow. as predicted, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

“My grandson is actually a little scared, nervous,” Gonzales said Tuesday — the day the New Mexico governor asked President Joe Biden to declare a disaster so federal aid could come to the greatest possible extent. fire in the USA.

“The smoke was really bad yesterday,” Gonzales said as 4-year-old Lukas, despite his fear, yelled “airplane” every time someone flew into the fight to save Las Vegas, his small farm and community in northeastern New Mexico. .

Gonzales’ car is full of valuables in case he receives an evacuation order. But she said if the entire regional center of about 13,000 people had to flee, she was not sure where they would go. The nursing home where she works as a pharmacist began evacuating elderly clients on Monday.

Nearly 200 patients at the state mental hospital in Las Vegas were also evacuated on Monday.

“We’ve seen a lot of fire trucks coming up the street,” Gonzales said. “And actually, the fire seems to be right above this little mountain.”

During a briefing on the wind-whipped fire that scorches the dry landscape, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed her request for a presidential disaster declaration and said she hopes it will bring financial aid to recovery efforts. She called it important to seek the statement now rather than waiting until the fire goes out.

Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat who is running for re-election, said Tuesday night that the number of homes under mandatory evacuation had jumped from 6,000 to about 15,500. The governor said the number of homes destroyed would likely increase greatly.

“I have families who don’t know what the next day will be like,” she said. “I have families who are trying to mentor their children and health resources, figure out their livelihoods and they are in every little community and it must feel like they are on their own.”

Fire managers offered reassurances, explanations and warnings at an evening briefing at the local community college. They put the amount of freshly charred land slightly on Tuesday to about 231 square miles (598 square kilometers), but said containment remained at just 20%.

Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst for the U.S. Forest Service, called the day “a brief relief from the extreme conditions we’re experiencing” but warned that dry winds are expected to pick up and change on Wednesday, pushing fire and smoke to Las Vegas.

“Tomorrow, we’re going back to red flag criteria,” Pearson said, adding that forecasts call for better firefighting conditions Thursday and Friday before winds pick up and gusts reach 50 mph or more during late summer. week.

“So if I have a message out there: please be very careful this weekend more than you already are,” he said.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said he has received calls from people concerned about safety if the fire reaches a ridge west of Las Vegas. Community schools canceled classes until at least Wednesday.

“I can say, from my training and experience, the city is very defensible,” Lopez said. “As you advance into the city, it becomes much more defensible. And you know, we’re doing everything we can to prepare for this.”

Fire trucks and crews worked on the outskirts of the city on Tuesday, and bulldozers cleared more lines of fire in the surroundings. Tanker and helicopter pilots took advantage of a lull in the thick smoke and falling ash to release fire retardant and water.

Authorities said the flames remained a few miles outside of Las Vegas, which is also home to United World College and New Mexico Highlands University.

New Mexico was swept by waves of hot, dry, windy weather across the southwest. Meteorologists also issued warnings for parts of Arizona and Colorado, and Texas officials urged people to be careful after several fires broke out on Monday.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken west — moving faster and burning faster than ever before due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Firefighters also point to overgrown and unsanitary forest areas where built-up vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that a dozen large, uncontained fires have burned nearly 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) in five states, including New Mexico. Nearly 3,500 forest firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fight fires across the country.

On the northern flank of the great fire in New Mexico, crews were trying to stop the flames from reaching the cities of Cleveland and Mora as the winds shifted, said Todd Abel, chief of the fire operations section. Lines of fire were maintained, but state officials urged residents who refused to leave evacuation areas to reconsider, calling the conditions dangerous.

The fire merged last week with another fire set in early April when a fire prescribed by land administrators escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.

Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that the federal government bears some responsibility.

Another New Mexico wildfire that burned forested areas to the northeast forced the evacuation of about 800 homes as it charred 238 square kilometers.

A separate fire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory led to the evacuation of around 200 homes. It scorched over 39 square miles (101 square kilometers) and destroyed at least three homes.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Nevada contributed to this report. Attanasio is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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