Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Fierce winds challenge fire crews as growing blazes force more evacuations | Local News

STormy Miller stood near a roadblock on NM 94 just outside an evacuation zone for the Calf Canyon Fire with tears in her eyes.

“I can’t go back in to get my service animals,” she said. “My mom is injured, and she is trying to load up the animals by herself. They sent a cop down there; that’s what I’m waiting for now.”

Miller said she had left her home for a few minutes before the roadblock was set up, and she was stranded.

A few tense minutes later, Isaac Reyes, a conservation officer for the state Department of Game, and Fish drove up with a baby goat in his arms and an anxious service dog in the back seat.

“I’m just so relieved,” Miller said.

Her family was one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, forced to evacuate from Northern New Mexico communities threatened by wildfires burning out of control amid a fierce wind storm with gusts of up to 70 mph that spread flames and hindered fire crews’ efforts to contain them.

Fire and law enforcement officials warned of a dangerous situation. They gave little reason for optimism through Saturday during an evening video conference from Las Vegas, NM, where evacuees from communities near the Calf Canyon Fire began gathering.

Kathy Segura-Salas, executive director of the American Red Cross in New Mexico, said at least 58 people had registered at a shelter set up at Old Memorial Middle School.

Not everyone was planning to stay at the shelter overnight, she said. Some stayed with friends and families, while others preferred to sleep in their cars outside the shelter.

“It’s a very chaotic situation out there,” Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst with the incident management team overseeing the blaze, said in the video conference.

The Calf Canyon Fire, burning uncontained, had grown to more than 3,000 acres Friday morning from just over 120 a day earlier, pushing residents from their homes in the Pendaries Village golf resort, Rociada and many other communities. It was worrisome — but far from the only fire threatening the state as powerful winds drove blazes that had sparked earlier in the week and new ones that ignited Friday.

At least three new starts were reported Friday evening: the 950-acre Campbell Ranch Fire in Union County in the state’s far northeastern corner, described as “very active”; the 100-plus-acre East Fire in the southwestern county of Grant; and the 50-plus-acre Cerro Pelado Fire between Jemez Springs and the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains.

The Cerro Pelado spurred evacuations of the communities of Sierra Los Pinos and Los Griegos, due to high winds, dry conditions and the fire’s potential for growth, officials reported. The Valles Caldera closed down.

Meanwhile, the Cooks Peak blaze north of Ocate in Mora County remained the state’s largest wildfire Friday, growing to more than 28,200 acres and threatening Colfax County, fire officials said in a late Friday update announcing additional evacuations.

The wind was so brutal that blowing smoke made it hard to distinguish fire perimeters, said Carl Schwope, the incident commander for the Calf Canyon Fire, which he called “a very dangerous and life-threatening event.” His short-term prediction was dire.

“The high winds will continue,” he said. “The rapid rate of spread will continue. … And we also have folks that are late to evacuate.”

Law enforcement and fire officials enforced evacuation orders over fears the Calf Canyon Fire could rush a dozen or more miles northeast to Buena Vista before turning to the east. Hard wind made it impossible to fly aircraft for water drops into the fire and even challenged the ability of crews to set up fire lines.

Officials knew Friday would be rough. “We’re in for one helluva day with the winds,” said Julie Anne Overton, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said in the Friday evening update that personnel from New Mexico State Police, Game and Fish, animal control and other agencies had been called in to assist.

“It’s been very difficult,” Lopez said. Officials said they couldn’t be sure how many homes had been affected. They named a variety of roads in San Miguel and Mora counties that had been closed or probably will be.

While fire crews had gained no ground on the Calf Canyon Fire, the nearby Hermits Peak Fire was more than 90 percent contained after burning more than 7,570 acres.

Firefighters responded in big numbers to the fires in Northern New Mexico and elsewhere in the state.

Sandra Moore, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service in the Southwest region, said 1,674 federal, state and private firefighters were called in to fight fires in New Mexico and Arizona.

“We are getting resources from multiple states,” Moore wrote in an email late Friday morning. “The extremely critical fire weather we are experiencing today with gusting winds potentially up to 70 mph is going to contribute to large fire growth, is testing containment lines and is causing more evacuations.”

Other New Mexico fires of various sizes were the Simona Fire in Valencia County, with 165 acres involved and 25 percent containment; Pine Peak in the Datil Mountains, about half contained and involving about 20 acres; and the James Fire, east of Cloudcroft, a small fire that appeared to have been caught and extinguished.

Experts expressed alarm at the situation, not only because of the number of fires that have erupted in New Mexico and Arizona this month, but because it is so early in the season.

“If you look at that trend over time, we’ll see the fire season get longer and longer and longer over the last four decades,” said Matt Hurteau, a forest and fire ecologist at the University of New Mexico. “This is the most concerned I’ve ever been in April.” Dry conditions, wind and climate change have contributed to the problem, he said.

San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley said law enforcement officials were out notifying people of evacuation orders tied to the Calf Canyon Fire, but not everyone was complying. Those who were reluctant to leave have “perpetual optimism, I guess,” she added.

Many residents expressed frustration with law enforcement, especially those who had pets and livestock to get out of the fire’s path.

Tranky Sena said officers threatened to arrest him if he passed the roadblock. “I live just up the road here, not even a mile from here,” he said, as other evacuees loaded two of his horses onto a trailer. “They refuse to let me go and check on my animals, even though the fire is 15 miles away.”

But officers helped Mikey Padilla rescue his 92-year-old mother-in-law and disabled wife. He said he had left his house to buy a generator after San Miguel County shut down power lines to reduce the risk of more fires.

“I come back, and they tell me I can’t go,” Padilla said of law enforcement officers. “Luckily, they took me to the house to get them. One of the animals we couldn’t catch, so he is still in there.”

Padilla, who has lived in the area for 35 years, said, “I know what the fire does after all these years. I’ve been in it. I was out here firefighting in a tractor.

“It’s not right what they are doing,” he added, speaking of law enforcement. “They should let people in to get their families and their animals.”

A joint news release issued Friday from San Miguel and Mora counties named 25 communities under evacuation orders due to wildfires. In Colfax County, Emergency Manager Thomas Vigil said the communities of Rayado, Sunny Side, Sweetwater and Miami were being evacuated due to the Cooks Peak Fire. The Philmont Scout Ranch also was being evacuated, while the town of Cimarron was on high alert.

There, Vigil said, “Evacuations have been going smoothly.”

Segura-Salas of the Red Cross commended residents in Las Vegas and surrounding communities for the aid they had provided evacuees. The shelter was able to offer hot meals and basic necessities, such as toiletries and pet food, and was working to find kennels for families with pets.

“That is thanks to the generosity of the community,” she said. “All this stuff was donated by them.”

A group of musicians from the Las Vegas Christian Center gathered outside the shelter in hopes of lifting the spirits of those who had been forced from their homes by the wildfire.

Gwendolyn Cruz said she wanted to do anything she could to help.

“We know a few people from our church have already donated supplies, so we just thought, ‘If we can add to the atmosphere, maybe people will feel better,’ ” Cruz said.

Aubrey and Bernadette Edge of Albuquerque took a pre-dawn trip to move their recreational vehicle from the fire’s path in the Pendaries Village area, where they have a small property. Arriving about 6:30 am, “It was perfect weather,” Aubrey Edge said Friday afternoon. But the wind soon roared in.

“And then by 8:30, you could actually smell the smoke,” he said. “It was a little bit nerve wracking. And still is. … Because we don’t know if, when we go back, we’re even going to have a property to go back to.”

Photographer Luis Sánchez-Saturno contributed to this story.

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