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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wildfire torching New Mexico pine forests keeps growing

By Cedar Attanasio and Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press Associated Press

LAS VEGAS, N.M. – The fire burning pine forests about 10 miles away from Priscilla Crespin’s home is the largest wildfire in the U.S. and the first to force the 81-year-old to leave the small northeastern New Mexico city where she has spent nearly all her life.

Crespin left her home in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on Monday because smoke from the fire wasn’t good for her asthma, her children were growing concerned and other family members who live nearby were making plans to leave.

On Tuesday, residents awoke to blue skies as the wind shifted – but afternoon gusts of up to 50 mph were predicted to fan the blaze, making for extremely dangerous conditions and tough work for firefighters that is expected to last through the weekend.

“We are very concerned about very significant fire growth today,” said David Craft, a National Weather Service fire meteorologist in Albuquerque.

When Crespin’s daughter showed up to take her to Albuquerque, fire crews were conducting fire prevention measures to try to make Crespin’s home safer if flames approach it – cutting down trees, raking pine needles and spraying water on properties in the area near her home. She grabbed clothes, photos and essential documents.

“It’s awful. It scares you,” Crespin said as she was driven away from her hometown. “You don’t know when it’s going to get to the houses.”

Even though no evacuations were ordered for the city of 13,000 people, the blaze that has charred 228 square miles of mountainsides and meadows has prompted some residents to flee. It has destroyed at least 172 homes scattered through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and led to the evacuation of the state’s psychiatric hospital.

Crews are battling on several fronts to prevent the fire from pushing into more populated areas as its feeds on tinder-dry forests.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West and are moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say.

California, for example, has experienced the eight largest wildfires in state history over the past five years, while a destructive Colorado blaze tore through suburban neighborhoods last December.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that a dozen uncontained large fires have burned about 400 square miles in five states, including New Mexico. Nearly 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fires burning across the country.

In northern New Mexico, numerous small villages remained under evacuation orders, including the town of Mora, which could face increased danger with an anticipated shift in winds that may send the fire toward it.

Residents in some outlying neighborhoods of Las Vegas were ready to leave their homes in the community that is the economic hub for the farming and ranching families who have lived for generations in New Mexico’s northeastern corner. No evacuations had been ordered within the city as of Tuesday morning.

The county jail, the state’s psychiatric hospital and more than 200 students from the United World College have evacuated and businesses that remained open were having a hard time finding workers as more people were forced from their homes on the outskirts.

Crews got a bit of a break Monday afternoon as the wind diminished and helicopters were able to make water drops in key locations. Still, flames running along the ridges above town could be seen from the discount store, an empty baseball field and other vantage points.

The fire merged last week with another blaze that was sparked in early April when a prescribed fire set by land managers to reduce fire danger by burning small trees and brush that can fuel fires escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.

Another New Mexico wildfire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory prompted evacuations over the weekend and other communities were told to get ready to evacuate if conditions worsen.

That blaze has reached the burn scars of wildfires that blackened the region a decade ago when New Mexico had one of its worst and most destructive seasons.