Behind the fire lines: Crews brace for monster 5-day wind event - Albuquerque Journal

Behind the fire lines: Crews brace for monster 5-day wind event

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

LAS VEGAS, N.M. – Craig Malloy has been a wildland firefighter for more than 20 years.

He spends his work days lugging heavy gear across a landscape filled with flames and smoke.

But this is his first time working in New Mexico, as part of an all-hands-on-deck strategy to battle the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. He’s from Apple Valley in Southern California.

“We’re used to the up all night, up all day and the hard work,” Malloy said as he wiped away sweat and soot from his face. “But being away from our families is hard.”

Nearly 1,300 people are working directly on the fire in San Miguel and Mora counties. And, while they got a break in the weather on Thursday and are expecting the same for Friday, they are sounding the alarm for a series of systems moving into the area beginning Saturday.

“Really, we’re looking at 96 to 120 straight hours of high-wind conditions, so please be very, very careful with any flames, grilling, anything that you’re doing outside,” fire behavior analyst Dan Pearson said during a Thursday evening briefing. “We don’t need any new starts.”

John Pendergrast, the team’s air resources adviser, warned the public to prepare for days of strong winds. “I’ve been a National Weather Service employee for 29 years … and I have never seen a forecast like this – anything close to it,” he said.

The team is expecting sustained winds of 28 to 37 mph through Wednesday, with gusts up to 60 mph.

“It’s going to be a historic event because of the duration of the winds,” Pendergrast said. “There’s not going to be any letup in these winds. I would also ensure that your family and loved ones are aware of this weather system coming.”

166,000 acres burned

Mindful of the brief reprieve from those extreme winds, fire crews are doing what they can to strengthen fire lines.

On Thursday, Malloy’s team helped out with a firing operation along N.M. 283 southwest of Las Vegas.

Crews started small, low-intensity fires in the Mineral Hill area to burn dry fuel.

Then, several teams came back to ensure the new fires were extinguished.

The “back burn” is an attempt to slow the main fire’s spread in case it jumps a containment line.

“We’re just picking up anything hot right off the road line, any smokers,” Malloy said. “We’ll put a bare hand on it to see if there’s any heat in there. But, for the most part, once it’s done smoking, we’ll move on up to the next line.”

Jared Andra, left, and James Amo, wildland firefighters from Stevensville, Mont., park their rig Thursday outside the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas. They are among firefighters from across the country who are staying at the historic hotel. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo acknowledged the many firefighters from around the country who are “working tirelessly around the clock to save our villages, our ranchitos, our casitas.”

“I, from the bottom of my heart, want to thank you,” he said. “If I see a fireman crossing the street, I stop my car and I tell them, ‘thank you.’ ”

The fire has burned more than 166,000 acres and is 20% contained.

Thousands of residents across northern New Mexico have evacuated and at least 166 homes have been destroyed.

Crews are counting on containment lines and firing operations to protect Las Vegas from the blaze if winds kick up as expected this weekend.

Mike De Fries, a spokesperson for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, said the next few days will be an “extreme test.”

“We know what’s coming,” said Dave Bales, incident commander.

He said among the things they’re worried about is that the strong winds could topple fire-weakened trees, and even healthy ones, and those trees could block roadways.

“You see you’ve lived through some of these wind events,” he said, “but have we lived through these wind events that last this long for four or five days straight?”

Pendergrast urged property owners to look for small items that may blow around and prevent a quick escape.

“Take time … to look for loose items around your property that can be blown about by the wind – small items that can impede your ability to move out of your property,” he said.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burns fields and forest along N.M. 283 near Las Vegas on Thursday where firefighters are trying to prevent fire from crossing the road. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

More help needed

Favorable wind conditions enabled aircraft to drop water on Thursday.

The teams keep careful records of how much water they use, painfully aware that supply is scarce in arid New Mexico.

“That’s what’s great about the water bucket drops; if you see a helicopter flying overhead, there’s a crew on the ground that’s directing that helicopter in and that’s going to be a targeted drop to cool a hot edge, a hot piece of fire,” De Fries said.

Communities and fire crews have sought state and federal help to battle the blaze, and, on Wednesday, President Biden approved a disaster declaration for the state. The move opens up federal funding for individuals, even as the emergency continues.

But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other officials are asking the federal government to do much more to address the fire’s destruction.

The Hermits Peak Fire began as a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn in early April.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., wrote a letter to Forest Service chief Randy Moore on Thursday, saying she is “outraged” by the agency’s mistake.

The Las Vegas native expressed shock that officials chose to go through with the prescribed burn northwest of the city, despite a dry winter and a warm, windy spring.

“New Mexicans will feel the damage from this fire for years and generations to come,” Fernández wrote. “Many of these tight-knit communities and homes have existed for centuries, and may never be the same. The forests that have burnt to ashes are integral to the culture, history and economy of the communities embedded in them.”

The congresswoman said the Forest Service needs to restore trust with the local community by investigating the prescribed burn and should consider updating protocols.

“I look forward to working with you to ensure that another prescribed burn does not spark a large wildfire again,” Fernández wrote.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, and Chase Coca, left, hand out dinners at an evacuation center in the old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas on Thursday. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Lujan Grisham visited a Las Vegas shelter on Thursday to help serve meals and meet with people affected by the fire.

“If you want to feel good about how people treat other people, show up at one of these shelters,” she said. “See all these New Mexicans who don’t know when they can go home, and they’re cooking and taking meals, and telling people it’s going to be OK, and they’re working 20-hour shifts.”

The governor said she is encouraged by the presidential disaster declaration that will open up funding for individuals.

“No doubt, the federal government relief, which is critical to our success, will be hundreds of millions of dollars,” Lujan Grisham said. “It will not be enough to restore everyone’s home to the way in which they left it. The state’s going to have to step up and fill those gaps.”

Outside the shelter, National Guardsmen moved truckloads of supplies donated from across the state.


Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.

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