Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire expands to nearly 100,000 acres - Albuquerque Journal

Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire expands to nearly 100,000 acres

The skies in Las Vegas, N.M., were dark from smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burning in the Gallinas Canyon on Friday, Explosive growth prompted more evacuations on Friday . (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A fire burning in the Jemez has torched more than 15,000 acres, destroyed three homes and is 15% contained as of Saturday morning.

Santa Fe National Forest spokeswoman Julie Overton said the Cerro Pelado Fire, which sparked on April 22, is burning seven miles east of Jemez Springs.

The fire was stoked by 40 mph wind gusts Friday and spread east into Frazier Canyon and Bland Canyon, entering a burn scar from the 2011 Las Conchas Fire.

Hundreds of firefighters on Saturday mopped up the northwest to southwest side of the blaze and will move east to increase containment.

Overton said the cause of the fire is under investigation.

The team battling the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has come to dread Fridays, and for good reason.

A week ago Friday, massive winds set off explosive growth as the Calf Canyon Fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire into what was then a 42,000-acre blaze.

Over much of the following week, crews began getting their arms around the raging beast – and then came another Friday when extreme winds again caused the fire to explode and burn another 35,000 acres and cover 15 miles of ground in the course of a day.

Incident commander Carl Schwope on Saturday evening said the fire “could easily double in size” before it’s contained. He warned people to be ready to evacuate if the time comes.

“Folks who originally saw fire way on the horizon when it started a few weeks ago, it’s now right here – I need folks to think about that, ” he said. “Now it may be right in your backyard and, weeks from now, maybe it’s in somebody else’s backyard.”

The blaze had grown to more than 97,000 acres and was 30% contained as of Saturday evening. It has destroyed 166 homes in San Miguel County.

Fire officials lamented Friday’s immense fire growth in the south but touted the successes of crews holding back the blaze from communities in the north. Looking ahead, meteorologists and fire behavior analysts predicted more windy and difficult days.

Schwope said as the fire moves south of Las Vegas, the smoke will be “in town every night.”

A helicopter flies past Hermits Peak to fight the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burning near the San Miguel and Mora County line Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’re still in a very dangerous fire situation. It’s going to continue, there’s nothing in the weather that looks like it’s going to change,” he said as his team prepared to hand the baton to Team 2.

The explosive growth Friday had New Mexico State Police officers and other members of law enforcement frantically banging on doors and telling people to flee their homes in areas not previously believed to be in play. Students at the United World College in Montezuma and residents in areas like Los Vigiles, a small community just outside Las Vegas, were among people told to leave Friday afternoon.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said that evacuation orders will likely continue if the wind direction resumes its path from Friday as predicted. He asked that residents cooperate with those orders.

“Just understand that it’s for the best and it’s for keeping you all safe,” he said.

On Saturday, Jayson Coil, an operations section chief, said the blaze was within a half-mile of the closest structure in Mineral Hills, which had been evacuated around midnight Friday after a smoke column collapsed, sending embers and flames to the south.

“It’s just going to be a matter of seeing how well we do versus how much energy that fire puts out. It’s a bit of a race right now,” Coil said. He said the goal of keeping the fire above N.M. 65 was “not possible anymore” and led to difficult choices.

Coil said one of those choices was shifting manpower from the western wilderness side of the fire, where it had crossed Tecolote Creek, to fight the flames threatening Gallinas watershed, the Hot Springs area and nearby communities.

“We know how important the Gallinas watershed is to the community of Las Vegas,” Coil said, adding that intense fire can turn watershed into “kiln-baked clay.”

He noted the flames are “still a ways off” from Las Vegas.

But Coil said crews had successes in the north where they had “a heck of a firefight” to keep the flames at bay near Rociada, Mora and Ledoux. He noted the “threat still exists” in those areas but crews had been making headway and they had “a big win” containing the fire near Cañoncito and Manuelitas.

Coil praised those crews, saying they made good decisions on the fly with limited information in chaotic environments.

“Crews would disengage when there … was an immediate threat to their life and then as soon as that threat passed they would reengage, and that happened all across the fire (Friday) multiple times,” he said. “It’s going to be easy when we tally this to look at the loss in acres, the loss in watershed, the loss in homes, but there was a lot of wins yesterday there was a lot of saves as they were out there working in that country.”

In a weekend rife with worry for the communities encroached by flames, incident meteorologist Gary Zell said the windy and dry weather isn’t expected to get much better.

He said winds decreased Saturday but Sunday will bring another red flag warning for the area, predicting wind gusts up to 40 mph – similar to what drove the fire Friday. Zell said those winds will decrease slightly Monday before reaching critical status Tuesday and possibly into Wednesday.

“So we have this three-day wind event where, even though they come down, they’re not going to come down a whole lot,” he said, predicting the first relief from high winds will come Thursday.

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said the fear and uncertainty has been constant since the fire torched communities to the northwest last weekend.

“This feeling hasn’t changed because there are still people losing their houses, you know, and their properties,” he said Saturday. “It’s just like a recurring nightmare, actually.”

As opposed to last weekend, Trujillo said they now have 1,000 “boots on the ground” fighting the fire along with aircraft.

“Right now, our biggest challenge is Mother Nature and the wind,” he said. “They are expecting … the winds to pick up again.”

Trujillo said a little ash had reportedly gotten into the reservoir but it’s still safe. If shut down, he said they have a three-day supply in storage.

Trujillo called it a “blessing” that the winds changed and fire hadn’t touched the reservoir. He recalled the Viveash Fire of 2000, which torched more than 20,000 acres and threatened the city’s water supply before being snuffed out.

“At that time we were scrambling … to see what we were going to do. However, we were blessed with that fire as well,” Trujillo said, hoping for a similar outcome in this case.

Meanwhile, Incident Commander for Team 2 Dave Bales said they are ready to take over. He noted, after weeks of fire fighting, there are still “many challenging days ahead of us.”

“My heart goes out to all of you. This has been a challenging event. It’s unprecedented, really, in the area,” Bales said.

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