Dangerous winds, wildfire conditions returning to New Mexico

LAS VEGAS, NM – 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 on Sunday, threatening to spread fires and complicate firefighters’ work.

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

A red flag alert took effect on Sunday, kicking off what firefighters predicted would be another “historic multi-day wind event that could result in extreme fire behavior”.

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

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

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

Thousands of residents were evacuated as the flames scorched large swaths 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 more fire crews keep arriving from all over the west.

For many California firefighters who support local units, the winds in New Mexico are intriguing. Unlike the sustained Santa Ana winds in Southern California, the air around the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fires in New Mexico swirled and was redirected in complex and shifting interactions with the mountains.

“We’ll see what happens,” said Fire Chief Ryan Lewis of Ontario, Calif., on a rare break with his firefighters at a local hotel that is serving hot meals to laid-off and evacuated workers.

The worst of the bushfire’s thick smoke had blown from some areas on Saturday, allowing residents of rural Las Vegas, New Mexico, to regain a sense of normalcy on Saturday as their rural neighbors crouched amid forecast conditions. extremes of fire.

Shops and restaurants reopened, the historic center was no longer just populated by firefighters, but there was a general sense of anxiety, loss and wariness about what was to come.

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

Nationwide, about 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time that much fire was reported at this point, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And forecasts for the rest of spring do not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and higher temperatures brought on by climate change have combined to worsen the threat of wildfires.

The main threat from the New Mexico wildfire now lies to the north, where blazes scorching vegetation that clogs the forest floor threatens several small rural communities, said fire spokesperson Ryan Berlin.

The threat to Las Vegas, a city of 13,000, was reduced after vegetation was cleared to create containment lines. Local authorities 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 firefighters at rest. By Saturday, he was in a partial state of recovery.

National Guard troops carried water tanks, people queued for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich met with local officials and visited the shelter housing some of the displaced.

“We don’t know if our homes are burning or if it’s going to stop,” said Domingo Martinez, an evacuee from rural Manuelitas, northwest of Las Vegas. “I hope it calms down so we can go home.”

Martinez, who is with her son on the east side of town, visited an old friend and neighbor who had been living at the high school shelter for 15 days.

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

“I love that everyone is coming together,” Aragón said. “I think a smile is worth a thousand words.”

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

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