Officials empty jail as fire marches closer to Las Vegas - Albuquerque Journal

Officials empty jail as fire marches closer to Las Vegas

The skies in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Friday are dark from smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burning in the Gallinas Canyon. Residents in Mora were urged to evacuate on Sunday, and Las Vegas residents have been told to be prepared as strong winds are expected to further complicate the firefight. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

UPDATE: Mandatory evacuation orders were issued at 4 a.m. Monday for the Luna and Cinder areas of Las Vegas while those in the areas of Creston and Bibb were told to prepare to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is now at 120,653 acres and containment has gone down to 20%.

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Community leaders in Las Vegas, New Mexico, are preparing for the worst as intense winds once again push the massive Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire complex closer to the city.

“They told us that tonight and tomorrow will be the two worst days we’ve seen so far,” Las Vegas City Councilor Barbara Perea Casey told the Journal Sunday evening.

Already, San Miguel County has emptied its jail south of the city, San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley confirmed. Students from the United World College in Montezuma, who had been evacuated to Las Vegas on Friday, were transported over the weekend by the National Guard to an emergency shelter at the Glorieta Center near Pecos. And plans are in place to evacuate the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, a retirement home and areas along New Mexico Avenue on the west side if the fire should make it to the top of a ridge near the city, Perea Casey said.

She said that when the Calf Canyon Fire exploded last month, officials began preparing for a mass evacuation of the city should that become necessary.

Residents of the village of Mora, meanwhile, were urged to evacuate Sunday afternoon as the destructive fire also marched north.

“Refusing to leave could be a fatal decision,” Mora and San Miguel counties said in a joint news release.

Shawn Carrell, a sergeant with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said about 35 to 40 officers were going door-to-door in Mora on Sunday afternoon to try to get residents to leave the area. He said officers knocked on doors overnight Saturday to get residents in other evacuation areas to leave.

The fire complex has swelled to 103,908 acres and destroyed 166 homes, according to fire officials. It is 30% contained.

The fire is currently the largest burning in the country and one of several large wildfires burning in New Mexico.

Numerous communities northwest of Las Vegas have already had to evacuate since the blazes sparked, and later combined into one, last month.

Evacuation shelters have been set up at the old Memorial Middle School, Glorieta Adventure Camps, the Peñasco High School gym, Red River Convention Center and the Taos County Sheriff’s Posse Rodeo Grounds.

Todd Abel, the operations section chief, said during a public meeting that Sunday had been a “very dynamic day with large fire movement in the area.”

Residents in parts of Las Vegas, a town of about 13,000 people, have been told to start to prepare for possible evacuations. But Abel said crews have worked to construct protective lines on the western edge of the city to protect residences in the area.

Ansley said the county evacuated its jail Saturday night and Sunday morning out of an abundance of caution. She said the county released 21 inmates and transferred 65 others to jails in Colfax, Taos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties. The San Miguel County Detention Center south of Las Vegas isn’t in an evacuation zone currently.

“We wanted to err on the side of caution,” she said. “We didn’t want to get caught in a worse situation and not be prepared.”

The National Guard is aiding in the firefight in a variety of ways, including helping to deliver potable water. (Source: Governor’s Office)

The New Mexico National Guard is also helping to battle the fire. The Governor’s Office said Sunday that soldiers have dropped thousands of gallons of water from a UH-60 Black Hawk on the blaze and they are going door-to-door to help with evacuations and working road blocks.

They also have buses standing by and are ready to evacuate the Behavioral Health Institute – the state-run psychiatric institution – and others should that become necessary.

Perea Casey said that if it comes to that, there are plans in place to transfer those in the BHI forensic unit, which houses those who have been found incompetent to stand trial, to correctional facilities around the state. Other patients, such as those in the Meadows Home nursing facility, would go to Fort Bayard near Silver City and some long-term care patients could be released to family members.

Perea Casey said the city’s firefighters are working round-the-clock to protect the city’s water treatment facility. She said at the moment the city is not at risk of losing water. City firefighters are also patrolling the city and the bosque in and near Las Vegas to jump on any blazes that might erupt there.

“I think that we’re doing everything that can possibly be done, and more,” Perea Casey said. “I mean, everybody is exhausted.”

New Mexico National Guard aviation soldiers are aiding in the firefight in a variety of ways including dropping water from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. (Source: Governor’s Office)

Those battling the massive wildfire outside of Las Vegas were warning about extreme fire conditions. Winds picked up Sunday afternoon, preventing aircraft from assisting with the firefighting efforts.

Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst, said firefighters are expecting strong winds to continue blowing northeast and then southeast on Monday and for several more days, complicating the firefight.

John Pendergrast, an air resource adviser, said he was expecting Las Vegas and surrounding areas to be faced with unhealthy and hazardous air conditions because of smoke for much of the day Monday.

West Las Vegas School District announced that it would be closed on Monday and Las Vegas City Schools announced that they would be closed through Wednesday.

“I was feeling pretty good this morning. But when I got home this afternoon, I was pretty shook up. And I think part of it is stress,” Perea Casey said. “Just thinking about everything that’s going on, the losses that people have suffered.”

The Hermits Peak Fire started as a prescribed burn, which got out of control. The cause of the Calf Canyon Fire is still under investigation.

Santa Fe National Forest officials, meanwhile, announced Sunday that the entire Pecos-Las Vegas Ranger District East of Santa Fe will be shut down to the public for the rest of the year, or until the order is rescinded. Violators could face $5,000 to $10,000 fines and even jail time, according to a news release.

Cerro Pelado Fire

The Cerro Pelado Fire, which started April 22, is burning seven miles east of Jemez Springs. The fire had grown to 17,885 acres by Sunday night. It was 10% contained.

Santa Fe National Forest officials have said the fire has destroyed at least three homes.

Sandoval County Fire and Rescue said Sunday on Twitter that residents who live near Valles Caldera should evacuate their homes.

Bandelier National Monument is closed until further notice.

Cooks Peak Fire

Another large fire is burning north of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. The Cooks Peak Fire started April 17 and has grown to 59,063 acres. The fire has also led to evacuations in several communities.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

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