The teams battling the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire said Monday morning that the blaze has grown to more than 298,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
It took just 40 days for the wildfire to achieve that dubious distinction, chasing thousands of people from their homes and destroying more than 580 structures and at least 170 homes.
Firefighters have had recent success in limiting its explosive growth, but it continues to rage and threaten more communities with additional evacuations issued on Sunday in San Miguel and Taos counties.
Ken Watkins, an operations section chief for the fire’s south zone, said that the blaze has “consistently exceeded expectations.”
Several Pecos River Valley communities moved into “ready” evacuation status on Monday morning, as officials warned of thunderstorms developing in the region.
“It makes it difficult for us to engage our folks and to have them out there in those places when those (storms) are building,” Watkins said. “As they start to push off to the east, they’ll send downflow winds that are very erratic. They’re predicting they could be 60 to 70 mph …Today’s going to be a very measured approach to committing our firefighters in these areas.”
Up until Monday, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire was the largest New Mexico wildfire. It started in the Gila National Forest on May 16, 2012 and burned 297,845 acres, destroyed 12 homes and injured eight people, none fatally, before burning out in July 2012.
As of Monday morning, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire had burned 298,060 acres, growing by 9,118 from the previous day. It was 27% contained, down from 36% on Sunday.
At more than 465 square miles, it’s the largest wildfire currently burning in the country. Management of the fire has been turned over to three separate teams.
“Forty plus days, almost 300,000 acres. I just want you all to know that we understand the impact to all the communities surrounding the perimeter to this fire,” incident commander Jason Clawson said during a Sunday night briefing. “… We have almost 2,000 personnel from all across the country supporting this incident working 24 hours a day, and just know that we all share that impact with all of you, and our goal and success for us in the end is that all of you are back in your homes and that this fire is successfully put out. Very challenging terrain, very challenging and extreme weather and fuels behavior and fire behavior.”
The Hermits Peak Fire started on April 6 as a prescribed burn that got out of control. The cause of the Calf Canyon Fire is still under investigation.
The two fires merged in late April. It has already destroyed at least 170 homes and has burned part of the city of Las Vegas’ watershed.
At one point, an estimated 15,500 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders due to the fire.