Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Fire officials stress caution in returning home

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burns in the mountains near Pecos last week. Officials said Sunday the northern New Mexico fire remains 50% contained. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

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With crews reporting 50% containment of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, authorities are reminding the public about the delicate balance between letting people return to their homes and keeping communities safe.

Officials say evacuees from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire’s southwestern edge – the Upper and Lower Colonias areas – have been asking about when they may go back home but that they do not want to make the call too early.

During a Sunday evening briefing, John Chester, operations chief for the fire’s south zone, cited the Big Pine area as a cautionary tale, noting that it had gone without smoke and heat for about a month until poor weather conditions kicked the fire back up and drew firefighters back in.

“The Big Pine area is a good example of why we just don’t let people go back in when it looks like it’s quiet,” Chester said, adding that officials want to avoid forcing a reevacuation by letting people back home too soon.

“We’re really focusing on making sure this is buttoned up (around Upper and Lower Colonias), so when you go back, you can go back for good,” he said.

Officials said Sunday they had maintained 50% containment of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which now stands at 314,750 acres with a 634-mile perimeter.

Weather has remained a challenge for crews, but fire behaviorist Joe Hernandez said in some areas – such as the southwest and western areas – the winds appear to be moving the fire back inward.

“It’s pretty substantial wind that we’re seeing – fortunately for us it’s pushing back into the fire and away from the Pecos corridor, so it’s given (firefighters) continued opportunity to continue the work that they’ve done,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said.

Monday could mark the last of four consecutive “red flag” days with high winds and lower relative humidity, but Hernandez said things could begin changing this week. Dangerous fire conditions will continue Tuesday, but Wednesday brings the potential for moisture.

“We’ll have higher relative humidities through Friday, lower wind speeds,” he said. “But with that we’ll also see a 20% to 30% chance of thunderstorm development, which could mean some gusty erratic winds and possibility of some lightning, so we’ll be keeping an eye on that as well.”

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