Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Massive fires in northern New Mexico have burned more than 100,000 acres as firefighters continued to battle blazes across the state on Sunday.
The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, which merged late last week, had burned more than 54,000 acres northwest of Las Vegas as of Sunday morning. Meanwhile, the Cooks Peak Fire north of Ocate had burned close to 52,000 acres and was 9% contained, according to fire officials. There are about 860 firefighters fighting those blazes, which as of Sunday evening were the largest wildfires burning in the country, according to the federal fire information system.
While extreme winds and low humidity caused the fires to explode Friday, weather conditions improved over the weekend and officials said they were able to reach 12% containment on the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire.
“Tremendous progress today. Firefighters are fully engaged,” Carl Schwope, the incident commander for the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire, said during a briefing Sunday evening. The firefight is running round the clock with a mix of on-the-ground crews and fixed wing and rotator aircraft, he said.
But challenges remain. The massive fire complex has more than 180 miles of perimeter, Schwope said.
Residents in numerous communities in San Miguel, Mora and Colfax counties have been told to evacuate their homes because of the fires. All of Mora Valley was ordered to evacuate Sunday as the fire marches toward it. Others have been advised to be ready for possible evacuations.
San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said that close to 5,000 homes and other structures fall within the evacuation zones. Another 3,000 residences and other structures are in areas that could become threatened by the fire, and those residents have been advised to prepare in case evacuations become necessary, he said.
Lopez said authorities would begin assessing the damage Monday in areas where it is safe to do so, and they would begin informing those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.
“This is my community. I know pretty much the majority of you, and I definitely feel for you,” Lopez said. “I ask for your cooperation and patience as we continue to work through this disaster.”
While an unknown number of homes burned Friday, Jayson Coil, an operations section chief for the Southwest Area Incident Manage Team 1 fighting the fires said no structures were lost late Saturday through Sunday.
“That’s been the primary effort,” he said of trying to save homes.
He said that firefighters on Sunday were at work trying to contain the northeast, east and southern stretches of the fire. N.M. 518 is serving as one fire line on the eastern boundary, he said. That highway has been shut down from La Cueva to Sapello because of the fire.
Bladen Breitreiter, the incident meteorologist with the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire, said a drop in wind speed in the area of the fire on Sunday offered a “breath of relief.”
“The winds today are going to be reduced from what we’ve seen the last couple days,” Breitreiter said during a morning fire briefing.
Breitreiter also said that a cold front moving into the area overnight will bring a chance of snow or slush, especially in the fires’ northern reaches. But fire officials said that any relief is likely to be short lived, and they are expecting the fire to become active again by Monday afternoon.
Another large northern New Mexico blaze reached 25,000 acres. The Mitchell Fire, burning in Harding County east of Mosquero, was 10% contained Sunday. The fire started Friday off of N.M. 39 near David Hill.
The Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains, which is burning about 10 miles from Los Alamos National Laboratory, remained at about 3,445 acres Sunday. Fire officials were expecting favorable conditions Sunday.
Fire season in New Mexico is off to a frenzied start.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Saturday there were more than 20 active wildfires burning throughout the state in 16 counties. She cautioned state residents to brace for a difficult season as temperatures warm in the coming months and urged people to adhere to evacuation orders.
Smoke from the wildfires prompted the city of Albuquerque to issue a health alert on Sunday. The smoke is expected to remain until noon Monday.