Firefighters in New Mexico slow the progress of the largest wildfire currently burning in the US after Joe Biden declared it a disaster, bringing new resources to remote parts of New Mexico Which have been devastated by fire since early April.
About 1,300 firefighters and other personnel are currently battling the fire, which has spread over 258 square miles (669 sq km) of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.
Fire bosses are occupying intervals of relatively calm and cool weather to prevent the fire from pushing any further into the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas and other villages scattered along the fire’s shifting fronts. Airplanes and helicopters dropped a red fire retardant solution from the sky, as ground crews cleared wood and brush to extinguish fires on critical fronts.
The federal disaster declaration was announced Wednesday evening by Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico.
“It will help us rebuild that and it will help us with the expenses and hardship that people are facing now,” the Congress woman said. “We’re glad it happened quickly.”
Scientists and fire experts have said wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West – accelerating and warming more than ever because of climate change. Rising temperatures have exacerbated drought conditions, decimating vegetation that grew in the southwest during last summer’s strong monsoon season. While the region typically has the driest days in late spring and early summer, the climate crisis has accelerated the cycle, setting the stage for a season of big fires and long fires.
“Climate change is taking a situation that would normally be bad for us,” says Greg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona, “and turning the dial.”
Bulldozers are scavenging fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, which has a population of 13,000, while crews conduct controlled burns to clear adjacent vegetation to contain the blaze. The aircraft dropped more fire retardant as a second line of defense along a ridge west of Las Vegas in preparation for the stronger winds expected over the weekend. The fire covered only 20% of its circumference.
Todd Shomeck, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque, said winds of up to 45mph are expected to return Saturday afternoon along with above-normal temperatures and “extremely low” humidity, which create an extreme fire hazard.
“Sunday and Monday are probably looking worse.”
Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for an estimated 15,500 homes in the valleys and outskirts of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains bordering Las Vegas. The number of homes destroyed by the fire is around 170, but it could rise further as officials have not been able to assess all the burned areas.
Biden’s disaster declaration releases emergency funds for recovery efforts in three counties in northeastern New Mexico where fires are still raging, as well as areas in southern New Mexico where wind-driven blazes have killed two people. and in mid-April more than 200 homes were destroyed.
A White House statement said the aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover insured property damage, and other relief programs for people and businesses.
Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were tracking another wildfire, about 5 miles (8 km) across the US nuclear research complex.
Dan Pearson, a federal government fire behavior expert, said weather forecasters predict relatively light winds two days before the return of strong spring thunderstorms.
“Our prayers are working as good winds are blowing across the fire area today,” he said. “We will take advantage of this fact in the next few days. What we can do is create flexible wallets.”