Strong winds continue to burn up New Mexico’s forest fires

SANTA FE, NM – Strong winds in northern New Mexico on Sunday again posed a stiff challenge to crews battling a major forest fire that grew significantly over the weekend.

The Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon fire east of Santa Fe, which began as two fires before merging a week ago, had burned nearly 104,000 acres, or more than 160 square miles, on Sunday, up from about 75,000 acres on Friday. It was 30 percent contained, fire officials said, with smoke from that fire and another – the Cerro Pelado fire in Jemez Springs, about 40 miles west of Santa Fe – permeated large parts of the northern part of the state.

More than 1,000 firefighters have worked to contain the Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon flame. The fire spread from Friday to Saturday exceeded predictions, officials said in public briefings. Wind speeds sometimes exceeded 65 miles per hour, according to Mike Johnson, a fire information officer. On Sunday, gusts of up to 45 mph were expected, and “extreme fire behavior” was possible over the next two days, according to InciWeb, a government website that tracks wildfires.

No deaths or injuries were reported as a result of the fire. State police reported the deaths of two people in April from another wildfire.

Carl Schwope, head of a team for the region that combines firefighting resources from federal, state, local and other agencies, said Saturday that the Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon fire “could easily double in size” before being contained.

“We are still in a very dangerous fire situation. It will continue,” he said, adding that the wind did not give way. “There is nothing in the air that seems to change. Events with strong winds, events with “North wind, events with south wind. It’s all over the board.”

Schwope also urged residents to be on guard for more evacuation notices, and on Sunday afternoon, residents of two areas of Mora County were ordered to leave immediately. According to Mr. Johnson was about 6,000 people from 32 communities near Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fire, some in rural mountain areas, already on order to leave the site.

Monica Aragon left her home in Ledoux, a small community northeast of Santa Fe, on April 22 and has only returned once. She and her two children have lived with her parents in Chimayo, about 60 miles from her home.

Last 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. The firefighters “kept it away from your home,” she remembered him saying.

Due to the persistent danger, county officials have not been able to provide a complete account of how many structures have been destroyed or damaged. But Joy Ansley, San Miguel County County Chief, said that before the Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon fire broke out Friday, it had destroyed 200 structures.

Roger Montoya, a state representative in New Mexico whose district includes three counties currently affected by fires, spent time last week with a team that provided food and other supplies to residents who had not yet traveled. Some were without power, he said.

“There is an aversion to individuals to leave their homes,” he said.

Samuel Coca, the daily manager of a bar at the CastaƱeda Hotel in Las Vegas, NM, said he had three vehicles packed with belongings in case he and his family were to leave.

As the fire grew Friday, along with the number of people leaving their homes, his bar began offering free buffet dinners to firefighters and evacuees. Many people left home with the clothes they were wearing and not much else, he added.

“The first dozen people I talked to lost everything,” Mr. Coca. “They lost their houses, their ranches, some livestock. It was hard to get through the afternoon without crying.”

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