Martina Gonzales and her grandson watched from their backyard as the plane disappeared in a giant plume of smoke to fight a growing fire that burned hundreds of square miles, destroyed some 170 homes, and threatened further destruction if the weekend winds whipped. , as expected, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“My grandson was really, uh, a little scared, a little nervous,” Gonzales said Tuesday, the day the New Mexico governor asked President Joe Biden to declare a disaster so federal aid can come for. the largest fire burning in the United States
“The smoke was really bad yesterday,” Gonzales said as Lukas, 4, despite his fear, yelled “airplane” every time one flew to fight to save Las Vegas, their small farm and ranch community in the north- east of New Mexico.
Gonzales’ car is full of valuables in case an evacuation order comes along. But she said that if the entire regional hub of some 13,000 people is to flee, she isn’t sure where they will go. The nursing home where she works as a pharmacist started relocating elderly clients on Monday.
Nearly 200 patients from the Las Vegas State Psychiatric Hospital were evacuated on Monday.
“We saw a lot of fire trucks coming up the street,” Gonzales said. “And actually, the fire looks right on top of this little mountain.”
During a briefing on the wind-lashed fire burning across the barren landscape, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed her request for a presidential disaster declaration and said she hoped it would bring financial aid for the recovery efforts. She said it was important to look for the statement now, rather than waiting for the fire to go out.
Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat running for re-election, said Tuesday night that the number of homes undergoing mandatory evacuation jumped from 6,000 to about 15,500. The governor said the number of homes destroyed would likely be much higher.
“I have families who don’t know what the next day will be like,” he said. “I have families who are trying to orient their children and health resources, understand their livelihoods and they are in every single little community and they need to feel like they’re out there on their own.”
Firefighters offered assurances, explanations, and warnings during an evening briefing at the local community college. On Tuesday, they slightly increased the amount of newly charred land, to about 231 square miles (598 square kilometers), but said containment remained at just 20 percent.
Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst with the US Forest Service, called the day “a brief respite from the extreme conditions we are experiencing,” but warned that dry winds are expected to pick up and change on Wednesday, pushing fire and smoke towards Las Vegas.
“Tomorrow we go back to the red flag criteria,” Pearson said, adding that the forecast called for better fire conditions on Thursday and Friday before winds pick up and gusts hit 50 mph (80 km / h) or more over the weekend.
“So if I have a message out there: please be very careful this weekend, more than it already is,” he said.
San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said he answered calls from people concerned about safety if the fire reached a ridge just west of Las Vegas. Community schools have canceled classes at least until Wednesday.
“I can tell you that, from my training and experience, the city is very defensible,” Lopez said. “As you get more into town, it becomes much more defensible. And you know, we’re doing everything we can to prepare for this. “
Firefighters and teams worked on the edge of town on Tuesday, and bulldozers cleared more fire lines in the suburbs. Oil tanker and helicopter pilots took advantage of a break in thick smoke and falling ash to drop fireproof and water.
Authorities said the flames remain within a couple of miles of Las Vegas, which is also home to United World College and New Mexico Highlands University.
New Mexico has been swept by waves of hot, dry, and windy weather across the Southwest. Meteorologists have also issued warnings for parts of Arizona and Colorado, and Texas authorities urged people to pay attention after several fires broke out on Monday.
Forest fires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West – they move faster and burn more than ever due to climate change, say fire scientists and experts. Firefighters also point out overgrown and unhealthy wooded areas where accumulated vegetation can worsen fire conditions.
Nationwide, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that a dozen large uncontained fires burned about 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) in five states, including New Mexico. Nearly 3,500 firefighters and wilderness support personnel are assigned to the fires that are burning across the country.
On the northern flank of the great New Mexico fire, teams were trying to keep the flames from reaching the cities of Cleveland and Mora as the winds changed, said Todd Abel, head of the fire operations section. Fire lines were on hold, but state officials urged residents who refused to leave the evacuation areas to reconsider conditions, defining dangerous conditions.
The fire merged last week with another fire that broke out in early April when a prescribed fire started by land managers escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.
Lujan Grisham said on Tuesday that the federal government has some responsibilities.
Another fire in New Mexico that swept through wooded areas to the northeast had forced the evacuation of some 800 homes while burning 92 square miles (238 square kilometers).
A separate fire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory resulted in the evacuation of around 200 homes. It charred more than 39 square miles (101 square kilometers) and destroyed at least three homes.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Nevada contributed to this report. Attanasio is a member of the body for the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.