LAS VEGAS – Firefighters in New Mexico on Thursday took advantage of the easing winds to build more fire lines and clear combustible brushwood near homes near the edges of the largest wildfire in the United States. They did so ahead of what is expected to be several consecutive days of intense heat, dry and extremely windy weather that could fuel the fire.
“Today conditions were kind of moderate,” said Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst, during a largely hopeful evening update from the US Forest Service and law enforcement officials. “And tomorrow will be another good day.”
But Pearson warned that from Saturday clear skies will bring more intense solar heat accompanied by winds of 30mph (48kph) followed by days of strong winds.
The fire has marched across 258 square miles (669 square kilometers) of high alpine forests and meadows on the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, destroying dozens of homes and prompting thousands of families to evacuate, many of whom have called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains since their Spanish ancestors died Region settled centuries ago.
President Joe Biden has passed a disaster declaration bringing new funding to areas devastated by fires since early April. Aid includes grants for temporary housing and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property damage, as well as other assistance programs for people and businesses.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham traveled through northern New Mexico on Wednesday and Thursday to survey the damage and chat with affected residents at a humanitarian kitchen, an emergency shelter and an elementary school.
The start of the blaze has been attributed in part to a preventative fire initiated by the US Forest Service to reduce combustible vegetation. The fire escaped control and merged with another wildfire of unknown origin.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who accompanied Lujan on a helicopter flight to tour the affected areas and meet with fire officials, on Thursday urged a senior Forest Service official to fully back the decision to begin “controlled burning.” investigate and disclose whether the agency has considered the effects of climate change and a mega-drought ravaging western states.
“What protocols or controls were in place to ensure a controlled burn did not get out of hand? Has the US Forest Service followed these protocols,” the congresswoman wrote to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.
The evacuations, which have now been going on for weeks, have put a heavy strain on the residents, both physically and mentally. Schools in the area have canceled classes for the week, some businesses in the small northeast Las Vegas town have closed due to staff shortages and some customers of the electric utility company that serves the surrounding areas have been without power for weeks.
San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said fire trucks, a fleet of airplanes and other equipment have been brought to the area to help contain the blazes and “we are prepared for whatever comes.”
But it’s still too early to let people return to remote areas that burned earlier because there are pockets of unburned bushes and trees around the fire that can serve as fuel for the fire.
“We’ve gotten to this junction on a couple of different occasions where we’ve been feeling good and we get to a wind event and it didn’t go as planned,” Lopez said.
Relatively calm and cool weather over the past few days has helped firefighters control the blaze on its shifting fronts.
Bulldozers scraped more fire lines Thursday while crews performed controlled burns to clear vegetation and prevent it from igniting. Planes have also dropped more fire suppressants in preparation for the strong winds forecast for this weekend.
Gusts of up to 45 mph are expected Saturday afternoon, along with above-normal temperatures and “abnormally low” humidity levels, leading to extreme fire hazards, said Todd Shoemake, weather forecaster for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “Sunday and Monday are probably looking worse.”
Nearly 1,300 firefighters and other personnel have been deployed to fight the blaze, while about 2,000 wilderness firefighters are battling other blazes elsewhere in New Mexico and the United States
Los Alamos National Laboratory officials cautiously tracked another wildfire spreading within about 5 miles of the US nuclear research complex’s facilities.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken west — they’re moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, according to scientists and fire safety experts. Firefighters also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Anita Snow and Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico contributed to this report.
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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/05/05/fire-crews-close-in-around-massive-new-mexico-wildfire/ Firefighters approach a massive wildfire in New Mexico