Governor estimates over 1,000 structures lost in blaze - Albuquerque Journal

Governor estimates over 1,000 structures lost in blaze

The charred remnants of a structure stand before Eric Garcia on Tuesday as a smoke column rises from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in the distance. On Tuesday the fire had burned nearly 300,000 acres and was 26% contained. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Eric Garcia has been fighting fires for decades.

The 50-year-old started alongside his father as a teen with the U.S. Forest Service, traveling around the Southwest. Now, the biggest blaze in New Mexico's history has ripped around his home of Ledoux.

“We never had to fight something like this, in our backyard,” he said. “We all grew up here, generation to generation.”

Garcia and his father, now 71, are among six others with the Ledoux Volunteer Fire Department patrolling and monitoring hotspots. He is reluctant to say the worst is over for the area and the crew is on standby, hoping for the best.

“That's all we can do, I mean, what's burned is burned already,” Garcia said.

Nearby, firefighters continue to battle the largest blaze in New Mexico's history as local leaders tally the estimated damage – including more than 1,000 structures destroyed and 15,000 forced from their homes.

Officials said they are keeping the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, now 299,565 acres and 26% contained, at bay in the north and preparing structures in the fire's path for the worst – as thunderstorms Wednesday threaten to spur unpredictable spread.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she understands the frustration of New Mexicans who believe the official estimates on structures lost, which sits at 601, are too low.

Based on infrared photos and other information, she said it's fair to assume that 1,000 to 1,500 structures have been lost and 15,000 to 18,000 people have fled the fire.

She offered the figures as “guesstimates” that aren't subject to the more strict scrutiny of the official estimates, which have the number of structures lost in the hundreds.

“Given the nature of this fire, the horrific heat and movement, the swift movement, I don't think it's an exaggeration to assume we're at 1,000 – 1,500 – in that range of homes and structures,” Lujan Grisham said.

U.S. Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said firefighters have faced difficult terrain and other complicating factors that make it a miracle there haven't been more injuries.

Despite those difficulties, there are good days.

Officials said crews made headway on Tuesday containing the blaze in areas like Guadalupita and preparing structures in other communities.

Jason Coil, operations section chief, said “things are looking good” in the north as fire crews continue to patrol around Holman. He said containment lines are holding from there to Chacon.

Going forward, he said the northern tips of the fire have the potential to be the most destructive and “present a significant threat” to Sierra Bonita. Coil said crews are in that area getting ready with structure preparation and bulldozer lines.

He said they have begun work on the north line, calling the coming days “a race” to get ahead of the fire growth and hold it back.

Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst, said thunderstorms may complicate matters Wednesday, with gusty winds that flow “in any direction” and can increase fire spread.

“What that is going to do to the fire behavior is undecided,” he said.

Despite those concerns, Turner said the cloud cover and elevated humidity will help a little. He said the north end of the fire hasn't been moving due to the hard work of fire crews but the northwest corner, near Jicarita Peak, is expected to see some fire growth upslope on Wednesday.

Since the fire calmed in his area of Ledoux, Eric Garcia has been taking in the damage done. He said, a few weeks ago, they helped save the community of Ledoux, the homes of family and neighbors.

“We were right there on the fire, trying our best,” Garcia said. Some have come back to burnt out homes, others have yet to return. He said aid workers have been giving people paint to cover their homes tinged by smoke, inside and out.

Some damage can't be fixed with a brush.

Deanne Criswell, administrator of FEMA, urged New Mexicans on Wednesday – if they have returned home – to take pictures, keep receipts and maintain other documents that will help verify their need.

Criswell also warned that FEMA programs are not designed to make a person whole. The assistance is capped at $39,400 for home repairs and $39,400 for other costs.

On a personal level, Garcia said seeing the burned forests where he once played and homes of his neighbors is devastating, particularly in Morphy Canyon and Pendaries Village.

“It's pretty sad just to see it all burn now. What can we do? It's in God's hands,” he said.

Black Fire

Down south, a fire in the Gila National Forest swelled 40,000 acres in the past 24 hours.

The Black Fire is 0% contained and burning 25 miles north of the Mimbres, challenging fire crews with the relentless combination of high temperatures and low humidity.

Most recently, the fire made a “significant run” to the east and crossed the Black Range Crest at Diamond Peak. Weather is not expected to get any better as above normal temperatures and dryness will drag through the weekend and into next week.

The cause is under investigation.

Cerro Pelado

In the Jemez Mountains, the Cerro Pelado Fire is reportedly 71% contained at 45,605 acres.

Officials say additional containment is expected in the coming days and have downgraded the evacuation status for Los Alamos National Laboratory. Fire crews are remaining vigilant as historically dry conditions and high winds predicted this week “are still cause for concern.”

The blaze sparked April 22 and is burning 7 miles eats of Jemez Springs. The cause is under investigation.

Bear Trap

A fire in the Magdalena Ranger District jumped a few thousand acres but is nearly a third contained. The Bear Trap Fire stands at 15,215 acres and 28% containment 22 miles southwest of Magdalena.

Officials welcomed a recent influx of cooler conditions and humidity on Tuesday as clouds and smoke cleared out of the area. They expect critical fire weather to resume in the area on Thursday with increasing winds into the weekend.

The cause of the fire, which began May 1, is still under investigation.

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