Dangerous winds and wildfires return to New Mexico

LAS VEGAS, NM — After a few days of calm that allowed some families who had fled raging wildfires in northeastern New Mexico to return home, dangerous winds picked up again on Sunday, threatening to spread spot fires and complicate the work of firefighters.

More than 1,500 firefighters were on the fire lines during the largest blaze east and northeast of Santa Fe, which grew another 8 square miles (20 square kilometers) overnight to an area more than twice the size of the city of Philadelphia.

A red flag warning was in effect Sunday, kicking off what fire officials predicted would be another “historic, multi-day wind event that could lead to extreme fire behavior.”

A few helicopters were able to pick up new aerial information about the spread of the flames early Sunday “but they won’t be there very long because of the winds that are blowing,” fire department spokesman Tom Abel said.

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

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

Thousands of residents have been evacuated due to flames that have charred 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 additional fire crews continue to arrive from the West.

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

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

The worst of the thick wildfire smoke had billowed from some areas on Saturday, allowing rural residents of Las Vegas, New Mexico to regain a sense of normalcy on Saturday as their rural neighbors cowered in the amid forecasts of extreme fire conditions.

Shops and restaurants reopened, the historic center was no longer just populated by firefighters, but there was a widely felt sense of anxiety, loss and distrust of what lay ahead.

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

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

The main threat from the New Mexico fire was now in the north, where flames scorching vegetation clogging the forest floor threatened several small rural communities, fires 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 neighborhoods on the city’s northwestern outskirts 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 but for firefighters at rest. On Saturday, he was in a partial state of recovery.

National Guard troops carried crates of water, people lined up to register for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief, and Democratic U.S. State Senator Martin Heinrich met local officials and visited the shelter housing some of the displaced people.

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

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

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

“I like everyone 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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