By CEDAR ATTANASIO and SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) — Martina Gonzales and her grandson watched from their front yard as aircraft disappeared into a giant plume of smoke to fight a growing wildfire that has burned hundreds of square miles, destroyed about 170 homes and threatened more destruction if winds whip, as predicted, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“My grandson has actually, um, been a little bit scared, nervous,” Gonzales said from the town of Las Vegas as New Mexico’s governor asked President Joe Biden to declare a disaster so federal aid can come for the largest blaze burning in the U.S.
The fire grew overnight to 250 square miles (647 square kilometers), with containment stuck at 20% of its perimeter. Strong winds were expected to blow the fire on Wednesday toward Las Vegas, population about 13,000.
Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said the fire’s heavy smoke and the noise from aircraft battling the fire were horrifying at times but sought to assure residents that crews were working tirelessly.
“If that fire jumps the ridge, we will be able to defend our city so let the citizens know that we’re not just sitting back waiting for something to happen,” Trujillo said late Tuesday.
Gonzales’ 4-year-old son Lukas yelled “airplane” every time one flew overhead in the effort to save Las Vegas, a commercial hub for the rural farming and ranching region.
Her car was packed with valuables in case an evacuation order came for Las Vegas, but she was not sure where they would go. The residential care home where she works as a pharmacist started moving elderly clients out on Monday. Nearly 200 patients at the state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas also evacuated Monday.
As the wind-whipped fire burned through dry mountainsides on Tuesday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the request for the presidential disaster declaration and said she hoped it would bring financial help for recovery efforts. She called it important to seek the declaration now, rather than waiting until the fire is out.
Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat who is running for reelection, said about 15,500 homes were under evacuation and that the number of homes destroyed would likely go much higher when it’s safe enough for officials to evaluate the damage.
“I have families who don’t know what the next day looks like,” Lujan Grisham said. “I have families who are trying to navigate their children and health care resources, figure out their livelihoods and they’re in every single little community and it must feel to them like they are out there on their own.”
San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said he has fielded calls from people worried about safety if the fire crests the ridge just west of Las Vegas. Schools in the community canceled classes at least through Wednesday.
“I can tell you, from my training and experience, town is very defendable,” Lopez said. “As you go further into town, it becomes a lot more defensible. And you know, we’re doing everything we can to prepare for that.”
Fire engines and crews were stationed on the edge of town, and bulldozers cleared more fire lines on the outskirts. On Wednesday, air tankers and helicopters took advantage of a break in the thick smoke and falling ash to drop fire retardant and water.
Authorities said flames were about 2 miles (3.22 kilometers) from Las Vegas, which is also home to the United World College and New Mexico Highlands University.
New Mexico has been swept by waves of hot, dry and windy weather across the Southwest. Forecasters have also issued warnings for parts of Arizona and Colorado, and authorities in Texas urged people there to be careful after several fires started on Monday.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Fire officials also point to overgrown and unhealthy forested areas where built-up vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.
Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that a dozen uncontained large fires have burned about 436 square miles (1,129 square kilometers) in five states, including New Mexico. More than 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fires burning across the country.
On the northern flank of the big New Mexico fire, crews were trying to keep the flames from reaching the towns of Cleveland and Mora as winds shifted, said Todd Abel, a fire operations section chief. Fire lines were holding, but state officials urged residents who have refused to leave evacuation areas to reconsider, calling conditions dangerous.
The fire merged last week with another blaze sparked in early April when a prescribed fire set by land managers escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.
Another New Mexico wildfire burning through forested areas near Los Alamos National Laboratory has charred more than 42 square miles (109 square kilometers), destroying at least three homes and forcing evacuations.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Nevada, contributed to this report. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.
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