New Mexico governor seeks more US aid for wildfire response

May 13, 2022, 11:55 PM | Updated: May 14, 2022, 3:55 pm
A haze of wildfire smoke hangs over the Upper Rio Grande valley and the mesa-top city of Los Alamos...

A haze of wildfire smoke hangs over the Upper Rio Grande valley and the mesa-top city of Los Alamos, N.M., on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Public schools and many businesses were closed as a wildfire crept closer to the city and companion national security laboratory. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

(AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s governor is asking for additional federal assistance to respond to wildfires burning across the state’s north, including one that is the second-largest in the state’s history and that officials estimate has destroyed hundreds of homes.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday in a letter to President Joe Biden that New Mexico needs more help than is being provided under the president’s recent disaster declaration.

The needed response, including immediate funding for debris removal and “a full range of emergency protective measures,” exceeds the state’s capabilities and the federal government should bear 100% of the costs because one part of the fire was ignited by wind-blown embers from a prescribed burn on the Santa Fe National Forest, the governor said.

That fire has since merged with another blaze and grown to 437 square miles (1,133 square kilometers). The 5-week-old combined fire for a time threatened the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas before being stopped just outside town in the past week. Fire crews continue to work to keep the fire from multiple rural communities.

Officials said Saturday that weather conditions still included unhelpful high temperatures and low humidity, but that less smoke had allowed firefighting aircraft to take to the skies for a second straight day to battle the blaze.

At one point late Saturday afternoon, the fire’s smoke column reached 30,000 feet (9,144 meters), creating the possibility that it could collapse on itself and create swirling winds close to the ground. Fire crews along part of the fire’s western flank were warned of that potential hazard, fire spokesman Mike De Fries said.

Wildfires have broken out this spring across multiple states in the western U.S., including California, Colorado and Arizona. Predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the West, with drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change worsening wildfire danger.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year — the most at this point since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Colorado, a fire burning southwest of Colorado Springs grew to 1.5 square miles (3.8 square kilometers) overnight and is 10% contained, officials from the Teller County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday morning.

The blaze, now known as the High Park Fire, broke out Thursday near the former mining town of Cripple Creek. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

By Thursday evening at least 120 people from 40 residences evacuated the area, the Teller County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook.

Officials say the fire could continue to grow as gusts are expected to reach as high as 35 mph (56 kph). Winds are expected to die down around 2 p.m. which could help firefighting efforts.

In New Mexico, the largest wildfire has a 500-mile (805-kilometer)) perimeter, longer than the distance between San Francisco and San Diego, and was just 27% contained. Another fire to the west near Los Alamos has burned 71 square miles (184 square kilometers) and was 23% contained.

Nearly 3,000 firefighters and other personnel are fighting the two fires.

Fire officials said the largest fire has destroyed at least 473 structures, including homes and other buildings. Lujan Grisham’s office on Friday provided an updated estimate that 262 homes had been destroyed but stressed that authorities have been unable to safely enter many burned areas to assess damage.

In other developments, New Mexican House Republican leaders on Friday called for the state to join a federal investigation into the handling of the prescribed burn that started the worst blaze.

“It is our sincerest belief that the people of northern New Mexico deserve an impartial and detailed investigation conducted by parties other than those employed by the federal government,” the GOP lawmakers said in a letter to Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

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New Mexico governor seeks more US aid for wildfire response