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Residents wary as fire burns near northeastern New Mexico town

Martina Gonzales and her grandson watched from their front yard as the plane disappeared in a giant plume of smoke to battle a growing wildfire that has burned hundreds of square miles, destroyed some 170 homes and threatens more destruction if weekend winds hit. , as predicted, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

“My grandson has actually, um, been a little scared, nervous,” Gonzales said Tuesday, the day New Mexico’s governor asked President Joe Biden to declare a disaster so federal aid can arrive for the fire. largest in the US

“The smoke was really bad yesterday,” Gonzales said as 4-year-old Lukas, despite his fear, yelled “plane” each time one flew into the fight to save Las Vegas, his small community of farms and ranches in the northeastern New Mexico.

Gonzales’ car is packed with valuables in case an evacuation order comes through. But she said if the entire regional center of some 13,000 people has to flee, she’s not sure where they’ll go. The residential care home where she works as a pharmacist began moving older clients out Monday.

Nearly 200 patients at the state mental hospital in Las Vegas were also evacuated Monday.

“We’ve seen a lot of fire trucks come up the street,” Gonzales said. “And in fact, it looks like the fire is right over this little mountain.”

During a briefing on the windswept fire burning in the dry landscape, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed her request for a presidential disaster declaration, saying she hoped she would provide financial aid for recovery efforts. She said it’s important to seek the statement now, rather than wait until the fire is out.

Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat running for re-election, said late Tuesday that the number of households under mandatory evacuation had risen from 6,000 to about 15,500. The governor said the number of homes destroyed would likely rise much higher.

“I have families who don’t know what the next day will be like,” he said. “I have families that are trying to navigate their children and healthcare resources, figure out their livelihoods and they’re in every little community and they must feel like they’re on their own.”

Fire chiefs offered reassurances, explanations and warnings at an afternoon 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%.

Dan Pearson, fire behavior analyst for the US Forest Service, called the day “a brief respite from the extreme conditions we’ve been experiencing” but warned that dry winds are expected to pick up and turn on Wednesday, pushing fire and smoke into Las Vegas.

“Tomorrow, we go back to red flag criteria,” Pearson said, adding that forecasts called for better firefighting conditions on Thursday and Friday before winds pick up and gusts reach 50 mph (80 kph) or higher during weekend.

“So if I have a message out there: Be very careful this weekend, more so than you already are,” he said.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said he has received calls from people concerned about safety if the fire reaches a ridge west of Las Vegas. Schools in the community canceled classes through at least Wednesday.

“I can tell you from my training and experience that the city is very defensible,” Lopez said. “As you get further into the city, it becomes much more defensible. And you know, we’re doing everything we can to prepare for that.”

Fire trucks and crews worked outside the city Tuesday, with bulldozers clearing more lines of fire on the outskirts. Tanker and helicopter pilots took advantage of a lull in thick smoke and falling ash to drop fire retardant and water.

Officials 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, windy weather throughout the Southwest. Forecasters also issued warnings for parts of Arizona and Colorado, and authorities in Texas urged people to be careful after several fires started Monday.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West, burning faster and burning than ever before due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Fire officials also point out overgrown and unhealthy wooded areas where accumulated vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

Nationwide, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that a dozen large, uncontrolled fires have burned about 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) in five states, including New Mexico. Nearly 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fires burning across the country.

On the northern flank of the Greater New Mexico Fire, crews were trying to keep flames from reaching the cities of Cleveland and Mora as winds shifted, said Todd Abel, fire operations section chief. Fire lines were holding, but state officials urged residents who have refused to leave evacuation areas to reconsider, calling conditions dangerous.

The fire merged last week with another fire that broke out in early April when a prescribed burn sparked by land managers escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.

Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that the federal government has some responsibility.

Another wildfire in New Mexico that swept through forested areas to the northeast forced about 800 homes to be evacuated while burning 92 square miles (238 square kilometers).

A separate fire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory prompted the evacuation of about 200 homes. It has charred more than 39 square miles (101 square kilometers) and destroyed at least three houses.

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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 staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden topics. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.