By CEDAR ATTANASIO and SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) — The fire burning pine forests about 10 miles (16 kilometers) 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 community 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, wind gusts of up to 50 mph (80 kph) 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 town of 13,000 people, the blaze that has charred 228 square miles (590 square kilometers) in New Mexico’s pine-covered mountainsides and burned at least 172 homes has prompted some residents to flee. It also led to the evacuation of the state’s psychiatric hospital.
Fire crews are battling on several fronts to prevent the fire from pushing into more populated areas as its feeds on Ponderosa pine trees in the state’s drought-parched landscape.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West and they are moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. In the last five years, California for example has experienced the eight largest wildfires in state history, while a destructive Colorado blaze tore through suburban neighborhoods last December.
Evacuation orders have issued for small northeastern New Mexico communities, including the small town of Mora.
And residents in some outlying neighborhoods of the town of Las Vegas were told to be ready to leave their homes as smoke choked the economic hub for the farming and ranching families who have lived for generations in the rural region. No evacuations had been ordered within the city as of Monday evening.
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.
“We’re trying to house and feed people with skeleton crews. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. It’s an extraordinary tragedy,” said Allan Affeldt, a hotel owner in Las Vegas. He said most of his staff were evacuated from their homes and he canceled guest reservations to accommodate firefighters and emergency crews.
The 197 patients at the Behavioral Health Institute were being sent to other facilities, with some transported in secured units and others escorted by police.
Las Vegas is also home to New Mexico Highlands University and is one of the most populated stops along Interstate 25 before the Colorado state line.
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.
A wildfire in 2000 forced the closure of the laboratory and left about 400 people homeless. The community was threatened again in 2011 when another blaze caused by a downed power line blackened more of the surrounding forest.
In the southern New Mexico community of Ruidoso, two people were killed in an April wildfire that destroyed more than 200 homes. That mountain community saw similar destruction from a 2012 fire.
New wildfires were reported over the weekend in Texas, New Mexico. Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 3,100 wildland firefighters and support personnel are fighting fires across the country, with about one-third of them trying to prevent the big blaze in New Mexico from spreading.
More than 4,400 square miles (11,400 square kilometers) have burned across the U.S. so far this year.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.