LAS VEGAS, NM – Wind-whipped flames swept through more pine-clad mountains in New Mexico on Monday, closing in on a town of 13,000 where some residents rushed to pack their cars with their belongings, others rushed to clear brush around their homes, and police were called in to help evacuate the state mental hospital.
Fire crews were battling to stop the blaze, the largest blaze in the United States, from making another run through the state’s drought-scorched landscape. The blaze has already charred more than 188 square miles and flames can be seen from the small town of Las Vegas in northeastern New Mexico a few miles away.
Fire officials said they expect the blaze to continue growing, putting it on track to be one of the largest and most destructive in the state’s recorded history.
The sky above the historic town square, made famous as a backdrop in several films and TV series, was a sickly hue of yellow and gray as thick smoke hid the sun. As the ashes fell around them, Chris Castillo and his cousins felled trees and moved logs away from a family member’s home.
“We’re all family here. We’re trying to create a line of fire,” he said.
Other family members were driving around with cattle trailers, waiting to help anyone who calls to move cattle.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West and they’re moving faster and burning more than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. In the past five years, California, for example, has seen the eight largest wildfires in state history, while Colorado saw a destructive blaze tear through suburban neighborhoods last December.
Officials say the fire will continue to spread
Fire officials warned Monday that the blaze in northern New Mexico will continue to spread at dangerous speeds and in different directions due to shifting winds, low humidity and high temperatures. They said the majority of days ahead will feature higher winds that will make suppression efforts difficult.
“This is a long-term event, and we don’t expect to have this fire ‘under control’ anytime soon,” fire officials said in an update Monday.
The blaze – stoked by a long period of hot, dry and windy conditions – gathered momentum on Sunday, prompting authorities to issue new evacuation orders for the small town of Mora and other villages.
New Mexico National Guard via AP
Residents of some outlying neighborhoods in the city of Las Vegas have been urged to be prepared to leave their homes as smoke smothers the economic hub of farming and ranching families who have lived in the rural area for generations. It is also home to New Mexico Highlands University and is one of the most populated stops along Interstate 25 before the Colorado state line.
Operations section chief Todd Abel said Monday crews were busy using bulldozers to build fire lines to keep flames out of neighborhoods.
Fire Information Officer Mike De Fries said crews had a short break on Monday afternoon as the wind eased and helicopters could drop water in key spots. Still, flames running along the ridges above the city could be seen from the discount store, an empty baseball diamond, and other vantage points.
The county jail, state mental hospital and more than 200 United World College students were evacuated and businesses that remained open struggled to find workers as more people were forced from their homes .
“We’re trying to house and feed people with skeleton crews. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. It’s an extraordinary tragedy,” said Las Vegas hotelier Allan Affeldt. He said most of his staff had been evacuated from their homes and he had canceled guest bookings to accommodate firefighters and emergency crews.
The 197 patients at the Behavioral Health Institute were sent to other facilities across the state, with some being transported to secure units and others being escorted by police.
State environmental officials and Las Vegas officials were also asking people to conserve water to ensure fire crews had enough to fight the blaze.
Across New Mexico, officials and groups were collecting food, water and other supplies for the thousands of people displaced by the fires. Offers of prayers and hope flooded social media as residents posted photos of the flames setting the tops of towering ponderosa pines alight near their homes. Some of those who live near the fires described the week the fire raged nearby as heartbreaking.
On the northern flank of the fire, evacuees poured in from the Mora River valley through the passes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains on Monday. State Representative Roger Montoya, of the mountain hamlet of Chacon, said neighbors put what they couldn’t take with them into metal containers and left them in irrigation fields, hoping the moisture would offer some protection.
Officials said the northeastern New Mexico fire damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures.
New Mexico National Guard via AP
It merged last week with another fire that was started in early April when a prescribed fire escaped containment after being started by land managers to clear brush and small trees in hopes of reducing the fire hazard. The cause of the other fire is still under investigation.
San Miguel County Deputy Executive Jesus Romero was helping a family monitor their home in the smoky, ash-laden air on Monday. He cut down trees around his garage as a fire prevention measure and chatted with other residents who weren’t yet decided to leave. He described the situation as serious.
Another New Mexico wildfire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory also prompted more evacuations over the weekend and other communities were urged to prepare to evacuate if conditions persist. worsened. He reached for the burn scars from the wildfires that blackened the region a decade ago, when New Mexico experienced one of its worst and most destructive seasons.
A forest fire in 2000 forced the lab to close and left about 400 people homeless. The community was threatened again in 2011 when another fire caused by a downed power line further blackened the surrounding forest.
In the community of Ruidoso in southern New Mexico, two people were killed in a wildfire that destroyed more than 200 homes in April. This mountain community experienced similar destruction following a fire in 2012.
And new wildfires were reported over the weekend — three in Texas, two in New Mexico and one each in Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 3,100 wildland firefighters and support personnel are battling blazes across the country, with about a third of them trying to stop the Great Fire in New Mexico from spreading.
More than 4,400 square miles have burned in the United States so far this year.