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As massive wildfires have forced more than 16,000 homes to be evacuated in northern New Mexico, the state is poised to become the first ever to receive a presidential disaster declaration while the emergency is still ongoing.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the request in a briefing Tuesday. She said she expects the White House to approve the declaration soon.
The declaration would “unlock nearly unlimited resources” for individuals, communities and ecosystems affected by the fires, Lujan Grisham said.
This type of declaration is usually delivered after a fire is extinguished.
“I’m unwilling to wait,” Lujan Grisham said. “I have … people evacuated, I have families who don’t know what the next day looks like. I have families who are trying to navigate their children, their health care resources (and) figure out their livelihoods, and they’re in every single little community. And it must feel to them like they are out there on their own. Well, you’re not.”
Other presidential disaster declarations this year made funding available for victims of floods in Washington state, tornadoes in Kentucky and landslides in Puerto Rico. All were issued weeks or months after the disasters occurred.
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has grown to nearly 148,000 acres and is 20% contained as of Tuesday evening.
The blaze is now the third-largest in New Mexico history.
It is fast approaching the acreage of the state’s second-largest wildfire – the 2011 Las Conchas Fire that burned more than 156,000 acres.
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire forced evacuations west of Las Vegas at the United World College and Luna Community College. On Monday, the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute enlisted the National Guard and private health companies to evacuate all 197 of the facility’s patients.
Karl Hernandez, market president of Genesis HealthCare Western New Mexico, and his team helped transport more than 40 nursing home residents – many in wheelchairs – to other facilities as the wildfire approached.
“It’s an honor to take care of our vulnerable population in a time of need,” Hernandez said.
Crews were working Tuesday morning to tackle the north and south ends of the fire.
Planes flew back and forth in the skies just west of Las Vegas, dropping fire retardant along a ridge south of Bradner Reservoir.
“This is just a backup in case those winds truly pick up and we get embers that cross our line,” said operations section chief Todd Abel.
On Tuesday, the fire made a run toward Cleveland, just northwest of Mora. Areas of West Holman and Chacon were issued mandatory evacuation notices.
About 15,500 homes have been evacuated because of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the Governor’s Office said late Tuesday.
In San Miguel County, at least 166 homes have been destroyed.
Lujan Grisham said about $29 million has been spent on the northern wildfires to date, with an additional $2 million being spent each day.
More than 100 National Guardsmen are helping deliver water and evacuate residents.
“At the end of the day, the Guard will be whatever the community needs us to be,” said Assistant Adjutant General Miguel Aguilar.
Fire crews from other states are among the more than 1,000 personnel on the fire.
The Hermits Peak wildfire began as a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn in early April.
The governor said agencies “need new rules about prescribed burns.”
“This isn’t our first situation where the federal government put us in harm’s way,” Lujan Grisham said.
In 2000, the Cerro Grande Fire started as a prescribed burn. The blaze torched about 43,000 acres in and around Los Alamos, destroyed 235 homes and caused $1 billion in damage.
Lujan Grisham said she expects that, in addition to the presidential declaration, New Mexico could receive “direct investments” through federal legislation for this year’s fires.
Meanwhile, about 800 homes have been evacuated because of the Cooks Peak Fire in Mora and Colfax counties. No structures have been destroyed.
And at least 200 homes were evacuated because of the Cerro Pelado Fire east of Jemez Springs, with at least three residences destroyed.
Evacuation shelters are set up in Las Vegas, Taos, Peñasco and Red River.
Nearly 500 people are sheltering in Glorieta, and Santa Rosa has opened a shelter.
The governor said the state is identifying more potential shelter spaces.