New Mexico firefighters have slowed the advance of the largest wildfire currently burning in the US as Joe Biden declared the situation a disaster, bringing new resources to remote stretches of New Mexico that have been devastated by the fire from early April.
Nearly 1,300 firefighters and other personnel are currently battling the fire, which has spread across 258 square miles (669 square kilometers) of high alpine forest and grassland in the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains.
Fire chiefs are taking advantage of an interlude of relatively calm and cool weather to keep the fire from moving closer to the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas and other scattered villages along the shifting fire fronts. Planes and helicopters dropped slurries of red fire retardant from the sky, while ground crews cleared wood and brush to put out the fire along crucial frontlines.
The federal disaster declaration was announced Wednesday night by New Mexico Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández.
“It will help us do that rebuilding and it will help us with the expenses and hardships that people are facing right now,” the congresswoman said. “We’re glad it happened so quickly.”
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West, moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts have said. Rising temperatures have intensified drought conditions, drying out vegetation that sprouted during last summer’s strong monsoon season in the Southwest. While the region typically sees its driest days in late spring and early summer, the climate crisis has intensified the cycle, setting the stage for larger fires and a longer fire season.
“Climate change is taking a situation that would normally be bad for us,” says Gregg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona, “and turning up the dial.”
Bulldozers have been scraping fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, population 13,000, while crews have carried out controlled burns to clear adjacent vegetation and prevent it from igniting. Aircraft dropped more fire retardant as a second line of defense along a ridge west of Las Vegas in preparation for high winds expected over the weekend. The fire was contained to only 20% of its perimeter.
Strong winds gusting up to 45 mph are expected to return Saturday afternoon along with above-normal temperatures and “abysmally low” humidity creating extreme fire danger, said Todd Shoemake, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.
“Sunday and Monday are probably going to look even worse.”
Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for approximately 15,500 households in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border Las Vegas. The count of houses destroyed by the fire is about 170, but could rise because officials have not been able to carry out an assessment in all the burned areas.
Biden’s disaster declaration releases emergency funding for recovery efforts in three counties in northeastern New Mexico where fires continue, as well as areas in southern New Mexico where wind-driven flames have killed two people. and destroyed more than 200 homes in mid-April.
The aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other aid programs for individuals and businesses, according to a White House statement.
Los Alamos National Laboratory officials were cautiously tracking another wildfire that crept within about 5 miles (8 km) of facilities at the US nuclear research complex.
Dan Pearson, a fire behavior specialist for the federal government, said forecasters are forecasting two days of relatively light winds before strong spring gales return.
“Our prayers are working because we have had favorable winds throughout the fire area today,” he said. “We will take advantage of this fact in the coming days. What we can do is build resilient pockets.”