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Dangerous winds, wildfires return to New Mexico

LAS VEGAS – After a few days of calm that allowed some families fleeing wildfires in northeastern New Mexico to return to their homes, dangerous winds picked up again Sunday, threatening to spread local fires and stop work for complicate firefighters.

More than 1,500 firefighters were on fire lines of the largest blaze east and northeast of Santa Fe, which grew another 20 square miles overnight to an area more than twice the size of the city of Philadelphia.

A red flag alert was in effect Sunday, predicting another “historic, multi-day wind event that could result in extreme fire behavior.”

Some helicopters were able to gather new information about the spread of the flames from the air early Sunday, “but they won’t be up there for long because of the winds out there,” fire department spokesman Tom Abel said.

“The wind is unbelievable. It’s a precedent, the amount of wind we’re going to have and the duration we’re going to have,” he said at a morning briefing.

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“They predict the wind will blow all day today, through the night, all day tomorrow, so that’s a long time for our fire,” he said.

Thousands of residents have been evacuated as blazes have charred large portions of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico — a total of 275 square miles (712 square kilometers).

The good news, Abel said, is that additional firefighting crews continue to arrive from across the west.

For many California firefighters supporting local units, the New Mexico winds are a mystery. In contrast to the sustained Santa Ana winds of Southern California, the air around the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fires in New Mexico has been spun and redirected in complex and alternating interactions with the mountains.

“We’ll see what happens,” Ontario, Calif., Fire Chief Ryan Lewis said during a rare break with his firefighters at a local hotel that serves hot meals to firefighters and evacuees.

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The worst of dense wildfire smoke had been blown out of some areas on Saturday, allowing residents of rural Las Vegas, New Mexico, to regain a sense of normality on Saturday as their rural neighbors huddled amid forecasts of extreme fire conditions.

Shops and restaurants reopened, the historic center was no longer populated solely by firefighters, but there was a widespread sense of fear, loss, and distrust of what lay ahead.

“It’s literally like living under a dark cloud,” said Liz Birmingham, whose daughter had a persistent headache from the smoke. “It’s annoying.”

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time so many fires were reported at that time, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And forecasts for the remainder of spring do not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures caused by climate change have combined to exacerbate the threat of wildfires.

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The main threat from the fire in New Mexico is now up north, where blazes that burned vegetation and plugged the forest floor threatened several small rural communities, Fire Department spokesman Ryan Berlin said.

The threat to Las Vegas, a city of 13,000, was reduced after vegetation was cleared to create containment lines. Local officials on Saturday allowed residents of several areas on the northwestern outskirts of the city to return to their homes, Berlin said.

The city looked like a ghost town earlier in the week, with businesses closed, schools closed and the tourist district empty except for dormant firefighters. On Saturday it was in a partial state of recovery.

National Guard troops carried crates of water, people queued to register for help with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and US Democratic State Senator Martin Heinrich met with local officials and toured the shelter where some of the displaced persons were accommodated.

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“We don’t know if our homes will burn down or if it will stop,” said Domingo Martinez, an evacuee from rural Manuelitas, northwest of Las Vegas. “I hope it subsides so we can go home.”

Martinez, who lives with his son east of town, was visiting an old friend and neighbor who had been living in the middle school asylum for 15 days.

Outside of school, Martinez got a free haircut from Jessica Aragón, a local hairstylist who volunteered her time.

“I think it’s great that everyone is coming together,” said Aragón. “I think a smile says more than a thousand words.”

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan, Felicia Fonseca of Flagstaff, Arizona, and Paul Davenport and Michelle A. Monroe of Phoenix contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/05/08/dangerous-winds-wildfire-conditions-returning-to-new-mexico/ Dangerous winds, wildfires return to New Mexico

Joel McCord

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