LAS VEGAS, NM – The Governor of New Mexico on Tuesday asked President Joe Biden to declare a disaster as firefighters rushed to clear brush, build fire lines and spray water to stave off the largest blaze in the United States to destroy more homes in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
During a briefing on the fire burning in the northeast of the state, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a request for a presidential disaster declaration that will be sent to the White House in hopes of releasing aid funding for recovery efforts. She said it was important that the declaration be made early rather than waiting for the fire to be extinguished.
“I don’t want to wait,” said Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat running for re-election. “I have families who don’t know what tomorrow is like, I have families who are trying to navigate their children and health care resources, find their livelihoods and they are in every little community and it must feel like they’re there on their own.
In the small town of Las Vegas in northeastern New Mexico, residents were already worried about grocery store closures, with some people choosing to leave before the blaze even though no evacuations had been ordered.
Fire officials said during an evening briefing at the local community college that the spread slowed down a bit on Tuesday and slightly increased the amount of newly charred land, about 231 square miles (598 square kilometers) of flanks mountains, towering ponderosa pines and meadows.
Authorities reported about 170 homes destroyed, about 15,500 homes under mandatory evacuation and said the Las Vegas State Mental Hospital remains evacuated. Schools in the community have canceled classes until at least Wednesday.
Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst with the US Forest Service, called Tuesday “a brief respite from the extreme conditions we’ve been experiencing” but warned that winds are expected to increase and shift Wednesday, pushing the fire and the smoke to Las Vegas.
“Tomorrow we are back to red flag criteria,” Pearson said, adding that the forecast called for better firefighting conditions on Thursday and Friday before winds increase and gusts reach 80 km/h or more during the weekend.
A battery of fire trucks and their crews were busy Tuesday protecting homes and other structures on the outskirts of Las Vegas as bulldozers cleared more fire lines on the outskirts. Air tanker and helicopter pilots took advantage of a break in thick smoke and falling ash to drop fire retardant and water.
New Mexico was spot on for the country’s latest bout of hot, dry and windy weather. Forecasters also issued warnings for parts of Arizona and Colorado, and authorities in Texas urged people there to be careful after crews in that state had to respond to several new fires on Monday.
Authorities in northeastern New Mexico said the blazes were within a few miles of Las Vegas, which serves as an economic center for much of northeastern New Mexico and ranching and farming families. farmers who have lived in the rural area for generations. It is home to the United World College and New Mexico Highlands University.
The governor said during her briefing that the number of homes destroyed would likely be much higher given the terrain covered by the fire and the villages it passed through over the past week.
San Miguel County officials said Tuesday they were unable to return to the burn areas to continue assessments because conditions were too dangerous.
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. Fire officials also said many wooded areas had become overgrown and unhealthy and the buildup of vegetation could worsen wildfire conditions.
Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported on Tuesday that a dozen large uncontained fires had burned about 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) in five states, including New Mexico. Nearly 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to the fires burning across the country.
On the northern flank of the Great New Mexico Fire, crews were trying to keep flames from reaching the town of Mora as the winds turned. Bulldozer lines of fire were holding, but state officials urged residents who refused to leave the area to reconsider, saying the situation was dangerous.
Northeast of Las Vegas, across a freeway, is the Zamora Ranch. Owner Kenny Zamora opened his corrals and barns for refugee livestock, including 160 cattle, 50 horses, 70 sheep, 10 goats and a few pigs.
José Griego and his wife Casey Taylor brought 10 horses and a small donkey to the ranch. Each has its own story: One was a wedding present for the couple. Another is Griego’s favorite horse for herding cattle.
“Anything that breathes is expelled, and that’s what matters,” said Taylor, who teaches science in a nearby community.
State livestock inspectors said green flags flew at the entrances to ranches where livestock are left during evacuations so responders know later.
The blaze merged last week with another blaze that started in early April when a prescribed fire started by land managers escaped containment. The cause of the other fire is still under investigation.
Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that the federal government had some responsibility.
Another wildfire in New Mexico that scorched forested areas to the northeast forced the evacuation of about 800 homes while charring 92 square miles (238 square kilometers).
Another fire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory has prompted the evacuation of about 200 homes. It charred more than 39 square miles (101 square kilometers) and destroyed at least three homes.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Nevada, contributed to this report. Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.