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Thursday, March 23, 2023

New Mexico residents prepare for extreme wildfire conditions

by Cedar Atanasio and Brian Meley

LAS VEGAS, NM ( Associated Press) — Residents of this small northern New Mexico town tried to regain a sense of normalcy on Saturday, with smoke billowing out of the city, as their villagers Neighbors chimed in amid predictions of a severe fire situation. ,

Shops and restaurants reopened, with the historic center now populated not only by firefighters, but with a widely felt sense of worry, loss, and what was about to happen next.

“It’s literally like living under a dark cloud,” said Liz Birmingham, whose daughter had constant headaches from the smoke. “It’s disturbing.”

While the city seemed to be out of danger for now, rural areas were still at risk as the fire was driven by winds so fierce all firefighters had to ground. And the worst is yet to come.

A combination of strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity was forecast by the National Weather Service to create an “important historical stretch for exceptionally dangerous and extreme fire weather conditions” for several days.

Some 1,400 firefighters worked to contain the largest fire in America. The fire, which is now more than a month old, has darkened more than 269 square miles (696 square kilometers)—an area larger than the city of Chicago.

Part of the fire was started by Forest Service personnel who had lost control of the burn scheduled to reduce the risk of the fire. State leaders have demanded accountability from the federal government, including compensation.

Nationwide, close to 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the last time so many fires were reported at this point in 2018. And predictions for the rest of the spring don’t bode well for the West, where prolonged droughts and warmer temperatures due to climate change have worsened wildfire risk.

Thousands of residents have been evacuated after massive flames engulfed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.

The main threat to the fire now was to the north, where vegetation burning in flames closed the forest floor, threatening several small rural communities, fire spokesman Ryan Berlin said.

Firefighters, who usually rely on calm winds and low temperatures to progress in the evening, have been stopped by unexpectedly strong winds at night.

The threat to Las Vegas, a city of 13,000, was reduced as vegetation was cleared to form control lines. Berlin said local authorities on Saturday allowed residents of several areas on the city’s northwest outskirts to return to their homes.

The city seemed like a ghost town in the first week, businesses closed, schools closed and the tourist district empty but firefighters to rest. Till Saturday, it was in a state of partial recovery.

National Guard troops raised water issues, people lined up to sign up for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D.N.M. met the local authorities and visited the shelter homes of some of the displaced.

“We don’t know if our houses are burning down, or if it’s going to stop,” said Domingo Martinez, an evacuation from rural Manuelitas, northwest of Las Vegas. “I hope it dies so we can go home.”

Martinez, who lives with her son on the east side of town, met an old friend and neighbor who had been living at a middle school shelter for 15 days.

Outside of school, Martinez received a free haircut from Jessica Aragon, a local hairdresser who volunteered her time.

“I love that everyone is coming together,” Aragon said. “I think a smile is worth a thousand words.”

Birmingham was one of four dog owners who led German shepherds and a black Labrador through an obedience course in a park next to a library. All had come under fire in some way or the other.

There was a construction worker whose all work sites were turned to ashes.

Fire officials warned Las Vegas residents that they should still be ready to go and not let their guard down as the winds intensify. High winds and rising smoke will also make it difficult or impossible to fly water drop helicopters and fire retardant dumping aircraft.

On a hilltop outside the city, a zigzag line of red retardant could be seen on the trees. The residents were praying that the line and wall of the rock would stand.


Mellie reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan, Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Paul Davenport and Michelle A. Monroe in Phoenix contributed to this report.

World Nation News Desk
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