LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) — A battery of fire engines and their crews were busy Tuesday clearing brush, building fire lines and spraying water to keep the largest wildfire in the U.S. from pushing into a small northeastern New Mexico city where some residents have already left and many are packed up and ready to go if winds shift again.
After being inundated with thick smoke and falling ash just a day before, the community of Las Vegas on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains awoke to blue skies.
But the much needed respite wasn't expected to last long as forecasters warned that gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) would fan the blaze, making for extremely dangerous conditions and tough work for firefighters that is expected to last through the weekend.
“We are very concerned about very significant fire growth today,” said David Craft, a National Weather Service fire meteorologist in Albuquerque.
New Mexico was in the bull's eye for the nation's latest wave of hot, dry and windy weather. Forecasters also issued warnings for parts of Arizona and Colorado, and authorities in Texas urged people there to be careful after crews in that state had to respond to several new fires Monday.
The crews working in Las Vegas were in constant contact with firefighters on the outskirts who were building more fire lines using hand tools and bulldozers. Air tankers and helicopters were dropping fire retardant and water in key locations to keep the flames from advancing, as the firefighting forces looked for every opportunity to girder the community in preparation for the more volatile weather.
Authorities said the flames were a couple miles from the city, which serves as an economic hub for most of northeastern New Mexico and the ranching and farming families who have called the rural region home for generations. It's home to the United World College and New Mexico Highlands University.
Priscilla Crespin, 81, is among the Las Vegas residents who decided to leave. She has spent nearly all of her life in the community and this marked the first time she has been forced to leave due to wildfire. The smoke hasn't been good for her asthma.
When Crespin's daughter showed up to take her to Albuquerque on Monday, fire crews were raking pine needles and spraying water to make Crespin's home safer if flames approach it. She grabbed clothes, photos and essential documents.
“It’s awful. It scares you,” Crespin said as she was driven away from her hometown. “You don’t know when it’s going to get to the houses.”
The blaze has charred 228 square miles (590 square kilometers) of mountainsides and meadows, destroying at least 172 homes in its path and forcing the evacuation of the state’s psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas. Schools in the community also canceled classes at least through Wednesday.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West and they are moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Fire officials also have said that many forested areas have become overgrown and unhealthy and that the buildup of vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.
California for example has experienced the eight largest wildfires in state history over the last five years, while a destructive Colorado blaze tore through suburban neighborhoods last December. In the last decade, New Mexico also has seen its largest and most destructive fires.
Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that a dozen uncontained large fires have burned about 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) in five states, including New Mexico. Nearly 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fires burning across the country.
In northern New Mexico, numerous small villages remained under evacuation orders, including the town of Mora, which could face increased danger with an anticipated shift in winds.
Northeast of Las Vegas, on the other side of an interstate, is the Zamora Ranch — a set of corrals, stables and open areas that have served the community as a venue for everything from rodeos to car shows. Now, it’s a place for livestock refugees, including 160 cattle, 50 horses, 70 sheep, 10 goats and a couple of pigs.
“There’s a lot of displaced livestock,” said owner Kenny Zamora, who opened his gates to help the community.
José Griego and wife Casey Taylor brought 10 horses and a small donkey to the ranch early Monday. Each has its own story: One was a wedding gift to the couple. Another is Griego’s go-to horse for rounding up cattle.
“Everything that’s breathing is out, and that’s what matters,” said Taylor, who teaches science in a nearby community.
State livestock inspectors said green flags are flying at the entrances of ranches where livestock are left behind during evacuations so that responders know later.
The fire merged last week with another blaze that was sparked in early April when a prescribed fire set by land managers to reduce fire danger by burning small trees and brush that can fuel fires escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.
Another New Mexico wildfire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory prompted evacuations over the weekend and other communities were told to get ready to leave if conditions worsen.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report. Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Cedar Attanasio contributed reporting from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.
Cedar Attanasio And Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press