Editor’s note: Fire officials said Thursday morning that the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has grown to nearly 260,000 acres and containment had dropped to 29%. And with another red flag warning in effect until 8 p.m., they warned that “this fire is going to keep growing.” More firefighters, heavy equipment operators, support crews and incident command teams are being ordered, they said.
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For weeks, Angel Fire Mayor Jo Mixon has kept an eye on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire – paying attention to extreme wind forecasts and the fire’s progression.
Now, the village is working to make sure residents are ready to leave if the fire gets closer.
On Wednesday, officials told residents to prepare for possible evacuation.
“It’s happening so quickly and everybody’s in shock,” Mixon said. “We’re looking at the fact that this is real and we could possibly be told to go, and some things might not be here when we get back.”
Black Lake and Hidden Lake south of Angel Fire in Colfax County have been issued mandatory evacuation orders.
In Taos County, areas east of Sipapu to the Mora County line were also told to evacuate.
The fire perimeter has grown to more than 236,000 acres, or about 370 square miles, and is 33% contained as of Wednesday evening.
The containment percentage has dropped from earlier this week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that containment lines were compromised. As the fire gets bigger, the ratio of containment to total fire perimeter drops.
The blaze created a spot fire northwest of Chacon and is “getting pretty close” to Guadalupita, said operations section chief Todd Abel.
“The fire is wanting to move to the north and a little bit to the east,” Abel said.
Thursday will be another red-flag day, with wind gusts of up to 40 mph in the fire area.
But the weather could ease up on Friday.
“It’s still going to be dry, it’s still going to be warm but, with less wind, hopefully it will give us a little bit of a breather over the weekend,” said incident meteorologist Makoto Moore.
Mora County officials announced Wednesday evening that some areas along N.M. 518 between Las Vegas and Mora would open for residents to return to their properties.
But Mora is still under mandatory evacuation orders.
The fire prompted Carson National Forest officials to close the Camino Real Ranger District in the forest’s southeast region.
Southern Colfax County has been busy as residents pack essentials, and load trailers with horses, alpacas and cattle.
“There’s lots of fire equipment coming in, lots of people trying to make it out,” Mixon said. “It’s something that we would never have ever wanted to happen here.”
Some people who recently evacuated to Angel Fire from Mora and Guadalupita now face the challenge of finding another place to stay.
Local firefighters who helped keep the blaze away from Las Vegas in San Miguel County are now deployed to the fire’s north edge, said Angel Fire village manager Santos Martinez.
“We’ve got at least 300 personnel on the ground fighting spot fires between Black Lake and Guadalupita,” he said. “We still anticipate a lot more fire resources coming to town.”
On Wednesday, the New Mexico Superintendent of Insurance issued an emergency order to help wildfire-impacted residents.
The order requires health insurers to waive cost-sharing requirements, cover out-of-network services and refill prescriptions early.
Health and property insurance cancellations are also under a 90-day moratorium for the affected counties, and insurance carriers must allow policyholders to pay premiums retroactively.
“No one fleeing for their lives should have to worry about things like this,” Superintendent of Insurance Russell Toal said.
Federal funding bill
The Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have introduced a bill that would require the federal government to cover the costs of the inferno, including uninsured property loss and lost wages.
The Hermits Peak Fire started on April 6 when a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service within the Santa Fe National Forest broke containment. The fire later merged with the Calf Canyon Fire and has become the second-largest blaze in state history.
Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury on Wednesday introduced the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, which would require FEMA to create a program for fully compensating those who suffered personal injury, property losses, and business and financial losses due to the fire.
“I would say that there’s liability on the federal government, because it was the federal government and federal employees who started the controlled burn, and then that controlled burn got out of control,” Luján said in a phone interview Wednesday. “So that’s why this legislation is specific to (the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire) because of the liabilities, I would say, and the fault of that fire getting out of control as a prescribed burn.”
He said the bill would go even further than President Biden’s recent disaster declaration.
That declaration made money available for temporary housing and home repairs, and low-cost loans for uninsured property losses.
“Everyone in New Mexico is grieving over the loss of our beautiful forests, communities and memories, from Gallinas canyon to the meadows and mesas in Mora where cattle and elk grazed, and the streams that nourished our acequias and farmlands,” Leger Fernández said in a prepared statement. “We will not replace in our lifetimes the forest landscape. But the federal government can and must take responsibility for the harm the prescribed burn unleashed on our homelands.”
The bill introduced Wednesday calls for the government to pay for insured and uninsured property loss, lost wages, reforestation costs, business interruption loss, insurance deductibles and new flood insurance.
The bill would task FEMA with creating an office to process claims and award compensatory damages in a timely manner. It doesn’t set a limit on how much funding the federal government could provide.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance said the office does not have data on uninsured and underinsured property in New Mexico.
“We still have work to do. We have to earn the support of fellow senators to get this passed up the Senate and will have to earn the support of House members to get this passed out of the House, as well, and then get it to the president’s desk,” Luján said. “So, this is an important first step, but there’s much work to do after this.”
Cerro Pelado Fire
The Cerro Pelado Fire burning east of Jemez Springs has grown to more than 43,000 acres and is 11% contained as of Wednesday evening.
Los Alamos Public Schools closed this week “to ensure that students and staff are home with families if there is a need to evacuate.”
Some areas of the Santa Fe National Forest are closed, as are Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.