Wildfires in northeastern New Mexico are expected to continue to increase


The fire, which burned about 10 miles from Priscilla Crespin’s home, was the first fire to force the 81-year-old to leave Little Northeast New Mexico community in which she has spent most of her life.

Crespin left her home Las VegasNew Mexico because the smoke from the fire was not good for her asthma, her children were becoming increasingly concerned and other family members who live nearby were planning to leave.

When her daughter showed up to take her away Albuquerque On Monday, firefighters cut down trees, raked pine needles and sprayed water on properties near their home. She grabbed clothes, photos and important documents.

“It’s awful. It scares you,” Crespin said of being evicted from her hometown. “You don’t know when it comes to the homes.”

Though no evacuations have been ordered in the town of 13,000, the fire that has charred 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) in New Mexico’s pine-covered mountainsides had prompted some residents to flee the community. It also resulted in an evacuation of the state psychiatric hospital.

Firefighters fought on multiple fronts to keep the blaze, the largest wildfire in the United States, from spreading to more populated areas while it fed on the state’s drought-parched landscape. Authorities were encouraged by a forecast for Tuesday of improved humidity and shifting winds. Still, the fire is expected to continue to grow and put it on track to become possibly one of the largest and most destructive in the state’s recorded history.

Forest fires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken west, and they’re moving faster and burning hotter than ever because of climate change, scientists and fire experts say. In the last five years, for example, California has experienced the eight largest wildfires in state history, while a devastating blaze ripped through suburban neighborhoods in Colorado last December.

The fire in northeastern New Mexico grew in size Sunday, prompting authorities to issue new evacuation orders for the small town of Mora and other villages.

Residents in some outlying neighborhoods in the city of Las Vegas were told to be ready to leave their homes as smoke choked the economic center for the farming and ranching families who had lived in the rural region for generations. No evacuations had been ordered in the city as of Monday evening.

Las Vegas is also home to New Mexico Highlands University and is one of the most populated stops along Interstate 25 before the Colorado state line.

Crews had a bit of a break Monday afternoon when the wind died down and helicopters were able to create droplets of water in key spots. Still, flames could be seen from the discount store, an empty baseball field, and other vantage points running across the ridges above the city.

The county jail, the state psychiatric hospital and more than 200 United World College students were evacuated, and businesses that remained open have struggled to find workers as more people were forced from their homes.

“We’re trying to house and feed people with emergency crews. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. It is an extraordinary tragedy,” said Allan Affeldt, a Las Vegas hotelier. He said most of his employees have been evacuated from their homes and he has canceled guest reservations to accommodate firefighters and emergency responders.

The Behavioral Health Institute’s 197 patients were sent to other facilities across the state, some transported in secured units and others escorted by police.

Officials said the fire in northeastern New Mexico damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 buildings.

It merged last week with another fire started in early April when a mandatory fire set by land managers to reduce fire hazards escaped containment. The cause of the other fire is still under investigation.

Another wildfire in New Mexico, burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory, also prompted more evacuations over the weekend, and other communities were told to prepare to evacuate if conditions worsen. This fire has reached the burn scars from wildfires that blackened the region a decade ago, when New Mexico was having one of its worst and most destructive seasons.

A wildfire in 2000 forced the lab’s closure, leaving about 400 people homeless. The community was threatened again in 2011 when another fire, caused by a downed power line, blackened more of the surrounding forest.

In April, two people were killed in a wildfire that destroyed more than 200 homes in the southern New Mexico community of Ruidoso. This mountain community was similarly destroyed by a fire in 2012.

And new wildfires were reported over the weekend — three in Texas, two in New Mexico, and one each in Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 3,100 firefighters and wilderness responders are battling fires across the country, with about a third of them trying to stop the spread of the Great New Mexico Fire.

More than 4,400 square miles (11,400 square kilometers) have burned in the US so far this year. Wildfires in northeastern New Mexico are expected to continue to increase

Bobby Allyn

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