Wildfire’s Rapid Spread Worries New Mexico Officials
SANTA FE, N.M. — Officials in northern New Mexico were bracing for more critical fire weather conditions on Sunday, as crews in the state battled a massive wildfire that grew significantly on Saturday amid high winds.
The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire east of Santa Fe, which began as two fires before merging a week ago, had burned some 97,000 acres, or about 150 square miles, by Saturday, up from about 75,000 acres the day before. It was 30 percent contained, fire officials said, with smoke from that fire and another — the Cerro Pelado fire in Jemez Springs, roughly 40 miles west of Santa Fe — permeating much of the northern part of the state.
More than 1,000 firefighters have worked to contain the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze. The spread of the fire from Friday into Saturday exceeded predictions, officials said in public briefings. Wind speeds exceeded 65 miles per hour at times, according to Mike Johnson, a fire information officer.
No deaths or injuries have been reported from the fire. The state police reported the deaths of two people in April from another wildfire.
Carl Schwope, the commander of a team for the region that combines firefighting resources from federal, state, local and other agencies, said that the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire “could easily double in size” before being contained.
“We’re still in a very dangerous fire situation. It’s going to continue,” he said, adding that winds were not letting up. “There’s nothing in the weather that looks like it’s going to change. High wind events, north wind events, south wind events. It’s all over the board.”
Mr. Schwope also urged residents to be on alert for more evacuation announcements. According to Mr. Johnson, about 6,000 people from 32 communities in the vicinity of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, some in rural mountain areas, were already under orders to leave.
Monica Aragon left her house in Ledoux, a small community northeast of Santa Fe, on April 22 and has returned just once. She and her two children have been staying with her parents in Chimayo, about 60 miles from her home.
On Friday, she said, she received a call from a volunteer firefighter describing the situation. He said he did not want her to panic, but that the fire had reached the road in front of her house. Firefighters were “keeping it away from your home,” she recalled him saying.
Because of the ongoing danger, county officials have been unable to provide a full accounting of how many structures have been destroyed or damaged. But Joy Ansley, the county manager for San Miguel County, said that before the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire expanded on Friday, it had destroyed 200 structures.
Eight other fires were also burning in the state on Saturday. New Mexico is one of several states that have dealt with wildfires this spring, fueled by high winds and drier conditions likely to be linked to climate change.
In Arizona, firefighters were putting out the Tunnel Fire, which had burned 19,075 acres in the central part of the state near Flagstaff, according to InciWeb, a government website that tracks wildfires. That blaze was 92 percent contained by Saturday night.
About 100 miles southwest of that fire, the Crooks Fire near Mount Union had burned more than 9,000 acres and was 38 percent contained, according to InciWeb. And in Nebraska, firefighters had contained 97 percent of the Road 702 fire, which had burned about 44,000 acres, according the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Roger Montoya, a New Mexico state representative whose district includes three counties currently being affected by fires, spent time last week with a team delivering food and other supplies to residents who had not yet left. Some are without electricity, he said.
“There’s a reluctance for individuals to leave their homes,” he said.
Samuel Coca, the general manager of a bar in the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M., said he had three vehicles packed with belongings in case he and his family needed to leave.
As the fire grew Friday, along with the number of people leaving their homes, his bar began providing free buffet dinners for firefighters and evacuees. Many people left home with the clothes they were wearing and not much else, he added.
“The first dozen people I spoke with lost everything,” Mr. Coca said. “They lost their houses, their ranches, some livestock. It was hard to get through the afternoon without crying.”