N.M. wildfire moves north as costs top $65M

Two more days of strong winds and bone-dry conditions are in the forecast as nearly 1,800 firefighters and support personnel battle the blaze

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press

Many homes near America's largest wildfire survived the latest barrage of howling winds and erratic flames but New Mexico's governor said Tuesday the risk of more destruction is high and that the long-term costs of recovering from the massive blaze will soar.

Two more days of strong winds and dangerously bone-dry conditions are in the forecast before some relief is expected Friday.

A sunset is seen through plumes of wildfire smoke in Las Vegas, N.M., on Saturday. Area residents have been on and off of evacuation orders for the past month.
A sunset is seen through plumes of wildfire smoke in Las Vegas, N.M., on Saturday. Area residents have been on and off of evacuation orders for the past month. (Photo/Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

Crews were most concerned Tuesday night about the potential for the massive fire east of Santa Fe to spread farther north toward rural towns and mountain resort communities closer to Taos — about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from its current northern edge.

Gusty winds that grounded aerial attacks Tuesday were pushing flames in that direction along the Sangre de Cristo Range on the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains stretching out of Colorado.

The main highway north from Holman to Taos was closed and additional communities were placed on alert for potential evacuations.

"It is very active. This is a big push, a lot of energy right now," fire spokesman Todd Abel warned Tuesday night.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a briefing earlier Tuesday that she has not received any reports in recent days of widespread damage to homes amid the latest round of fierce winds that fanned the blaze and created challenges for firefighting crews.

Crews have been trying to direct flames around homes in numerous small villages on the northern and southern ends of the fire — bulldozing firebreaks, putting up sprinklers, clearing trees and raking pine needles. A force of nearly 1,800 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to the blaze, including specially trained teams.

The cost of fighting the blaze and another smaller fire burning near Los Alamos National Laboratory has topped $65 million.

The cost is expected to grow with wind predicted through Wednesday, and Lujan Grisham said the cost to reconstruct homes, prevent post-fire flooding and restore the forest charred by the larger fire after it is out will likely reach billions of dollars.

"When you think about rebuilding communities, it is not an overnight process," Lujan Grisham said. "So we should be thinking in terms of significant resources and those resources in my view should largely be borne by the federal government given the situation."

The nearly 320-square-mile (830-square-kilometer) wildfire has burned about 300 structures, including homes, since it started last month. Some areas remain under evacuation orders, but authorities on Monday started letting some residents on the fire's eastern flank return home.

A federal disaster already has been declared due to the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire set in early April that escaped containment. The flames merged with a separate fire a couple of weeks later, and as of Tuesday the jagged perimeter stretched more than 356 miles (573 kilometers).
Structure protection was focused Tuesday night around Mora and Holman, where Highway 518 north to Taos was closed. Authorities stressed there was no immediate threat to communities around Taos but new alerts about potential evacuations stretched as far north as the Angel Fire ski resort east of Taos.

"Coming up toward Taos, Black Lake, Angel Fire, there is the possibility with the models we are running that those areas are going to see fire," Abel, an operations chief on the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, said at a briefing Tuesday evening.

The governor said she'd challenge anyone who didn't believe the federal government should accept significant liability.

"It's negligent to consider a prescribed burn in the windy season in a state that is under an extreme drought warning," she said.

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation and others have called for an investigation. While forest officials have yet to release planning documents related to the prescribed fire, they have said forecasted weather conditions were within parameters for the project.

Meanwhile, the smaller blaze burning in the Jemez Mountains prompted officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear research is conducted, and the nearby town of Los Alamos to prepare for evacuations as a precaution.

Nearly 900 people were fighting that fire, with its price tag nearing $16 million on Tuesday.

Towering columns of smoke from both fires could be seen from miles away as the winds picked up Tuesday afternoon.

Wind and low humidity levels continue to be big wildfire threats around the West as the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for extreme fire danger in much of New Mexico and parts of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Forecasters said New Mexico is outpacing most other recent years for the number of red flag days in April and so far this month.

Crews also were battling smaller fires elsewhere in New Mexico and Arizona.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno, Nevada.

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