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KUNM News Update

SAT: Fire crews continue to tackle growing wildfires, US begins phasing out COVID era asylum restrictions, + More

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Crews tackle growing wildfires; 'A very chaotic situation'By Felicia Fonseca, Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Maggie Mulligan said her dogs could sense the panic as she and her husband packed them up and fled a fast-moving wildfire barreling toward their home in northeast New Mexico as they agonized over having to leave their horses behind.

"We don't know what's next," she said. "We don't know if we can go back to the horses."

Mulligan and her husband, Bill Gombas, 67, were among the anxious residents who hurriedly packed up and evacuated their homes Friday ahead of ominous western wildfires fueled by tinder-dry conditions and ferocious winds.

More than 1,600 firefighters were battling nine different large fires in Arizona and New Mexico that have destroyed dozens of homes and burned more than 100 square miles in the blazes.

Fires also were burning in Colorado, where new evacuations were ordered Friday west of Colorado Springs. But there were no immediate reports of structures lost.

With no air support or crews working directly on the fire lines, there was explosive growth in the size and number of new small fires in the U.S. Southwest on Friday.

"It's a very chaotic situation out there," Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst, said during a briefing Friday night on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico. "We've had extreme fire behavior all day."

Firefighters working to keep more homes from burning on the edge of a mountain town in northern Arizona were helped by snow, scattered showers and cooler temperatures early Friday. But the favorable weather did not last. While sustained winds were forecast to ease a bit, more gusts were expected to batter parts of Arizona and all of New Mexico through the weekend.

The fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest it had been in over a decade, according to the National Weather Service, because of unseasonable temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.

At one of the biggest fires near Flagstaff, Arizona, where 30 homes and numerous other buildings have been destroyed, authorities said they had used sirens and alarms Thursday night to warn residents to flee evacuation areas but howling winds muffled the alarms.

By Friday, afternoon winds were gusting up to 75 mph (120 kph) in northern New Mexico near the Colorado line, shrouding the Rio Grande Valley with dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north.

A wall of smoke stretched from wilderness just east of Santa Fe about 50 miles (80 km) to the northeast where ranchers and other rural inhabitants were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement.

Mulligan, 68, of Ledoux, a dog breeder, said her dog Liam "was a nervous wreck," when a sheriff came to their house Friday afternoon and told them they had to leave.

They did — with nine dogs and five puppies packed into an SUV and an old blue Cadillac They considered dropping the horses off at a local fairgrounds, but they decided it was in the same path of the burning fire as their home and more likely to burn.

"There's water in their pasture, and there's hay. So we'll see what happens," Mulligan said.

Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in the nearby Rociada area for five generations, got out Friday as winds kicked up. She said most people were taking the threat seriously.

"As a community, as a whole, everybody is just pulling together to support each other and just take care of the things we need to now. And then at that point, it's in God's hands," she said as the wind howled miles away in the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where evacuees were gathering.

Another wind-whipped fire in northeastern New Mexico also was forcing evacuations. The town of Cimarron and the headquarters of the Philmont Scout Ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, were preparing to flee if necessary. The scout ranch attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no scouts were on the property.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.

In Arizona, flames had raced through rural neighborhoods outside Flagstaff just days earlier. A break in the weather Thursday allowed helicopters to drop water on the blaze and authorities to survey the damage.

They found 30 homes and numerous other buildings were destroyed, with sheriff's officials saying over 100 properties were affected. That fire has burned close to 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) and forced the evacuations of 765 homes after starting last Sunday.

Kelly Morgan is among neighbors at the edge of the evacuation zone who did not leave. She and her husband have lived through wildfires before, she said, and they are prepared if winds shift and flames race toward the home they moved into three years ago.

"Unfortunately, it's not something new to us ... but I hate seeing it when people are affected the way they are right now," she said. "It's sad. It's a very sad time. But as a community, we've really come together."

US begins phasing out COVID-driven asylum restrictionsBy Kevin McGill, Associated Press

The Biden administration said Friday it has begun phasing out use of a pandemic-related rule that allows migrants to be expelled without an opportunity to seek asylum as 22 states fight in court to preserve the policy.

U.S. authorities have processed more single adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent weeks under immigration laws, which include a right to seek asylum, said Blas Nuñez-Neto, acting assistant Homeland Security secretary for border and immigration policy. The pandemic-related rule is set to expire May 23.

Nuñez-Neto's statement was part of a filing in federal court in Lafayette, Louisiana, where Louisiana, Arizona and Missouri sued this month to keep the rule. Eighteen other states later joined and, on Thursday, the states asked a judge to stop what they called the "premature implementation" of the end of the rule.

Nuñez-Neto said applying non-health related immigration laws was "not novel" during the pandemic and that increasing use of them on single adults from Central American countries will help prepare for the May 23 expiration.

About 14% of single adults from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were processed under immigration laws during a seven-day period ending Thursday, Nuñez-Neto said. That's up from only 5% in March, according to government figures.

Single adults from those countries have been targeted under the rule because Mexico has agreed to take them back while the rule is in effect, an option that will disappear for U.S. authorities when the powers are lifted.

It was unclear how quickly the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays, appointed by former President Donald Trump, would rule on the states' request for a restraining order.

Meanwhile, the state of Texas on Friday filed its own challenge to the termination of the rule in federal court in Victoria, Texas. The case had not been assigned to a judge as of Friday afternoon. The Justice Department declined comment on the Texas suit.

Migrants have been expelled more than 1.8 million times under the rule, which was invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Advocates for asylum-seekers support the end to the rule, which they say endangers people fleeing persecution back home and violates rights to seek protection under U.S. law and international treaty. The states challenging the administration say the U.S. is not ready for a likely influx of migrants resulting from the rule's end, straining public services and economies.

Mask mandates return to US college campuses as cases riseBy Heather Hollingsworth, Ashraf Khalil, Associated Press

The final weeks of the college school year have been disrupted yet again by COVID-19 as universities bring back mask mandates, switch to online classes and scale back large gatherings in response to upticks in coronavirus infections.

Colleges in Washington, D.C., New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Texas have reimposed a range of virus measures, with Howard University moving to remote learning amid a surge in cases in the nation's capital.

This is the third straight academic year that has been upended by COVID-19, meaning soon-to-be seniors have yet to experience a normal college year.

"I feel like last summer it was everyone was like, 'Oh, this is it. We're nearing the tail end,'" recalled Nina Heller, a junior at American University in Washington D.C., where administrators brought back a mask mandate about a month after lifting it. "And then that didn't quite happen, and now we're here at summer again, and there's kind of no end."

Mandates were shed widely in the wake of spring break as case numbers dropped following a winter surge fueled by the omicron variant. But several Northeast cities have seen a rise in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, as the BA.2 subvariant of the omicron variant continues to rapidly spread throughout the U.S.

"As much as we would like to move on and think that the pandemic is over, and I think we all would like that to happen at this point, it's wishful thinking," said Anita Barkin, co-chair of a COVID-19 task force for the American College Health Association. "The pandemic is still with us."

COVID-19 had eased so much at Williams College that the private liberal arts school in Massachusetts allowed professors to decide whether to require masks in their classes early last week. But just days later, with cases rising, it reinstated an indoor mask mandate, which was even stricter than what had been in place before.

"I think students are really feeling like people they know are dropping like flies," said junior Kitt Urdang, who's had a half-dozen friends test positive in recent days. "There's definitely been a lot more uncertainty than there's been on campus since COVID hit."

Philadelphia recently brought back its mask mandate, leading the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University to again require them starting Monday. Although the city ended the mandate Thursday, the colleges haven't made any changes.

In Washington, D.C., Howard University's main campus, affectionately dubbed "The Hilltop" by students and alums, was largely quiet this week, with many students taking classes and exams from home. The academic year is coming to a muted end as rising virus numbers prompted administrators to abruptly shift back to online education.

The city's COVID infection rate has more than doubled in April. Besides American, Georgetown and George Washington University also reinstated their indoor mask mandates. But Howard is the only one that has moved away from in-person instruction. The spring semester ends Friday, with final exams for most students starting next week. Administrators have promised an update on what this means for the May 7 commencement ceremony.

"I don't think people are super unhappy about wearing masks," said Lia DeGroot, a George Washington senior who never shed her mask during the single week the mandate was lifted at her school. "Of all of the things that the pandemic has disrupted, I think wearing masks is, you know, a relatively small thing to do. I think that's kind of the mindset that a lot of students have."

In nearby Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University announced this month that it was testing all undergraduate students twice weekly through Friday, noting a steep rise in cases. The school also said masks would be required not just in classrooms, but in places like residence hall common areas.

In Houston, Rice University announced earlier this month that students should resume wearing masks in classrooms, citing an uptick in cases on campus. Large college parties also were canceled.

New Mexico State University took a different tack, announcing Monday that all students on campus must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by July 1, ending the option of submitting weekly tests as an alternative.

One of the few counties still identified by the CDC as having high spread is home to New York's Syracuse University, which announced Monday that it would again require masks in classrooms.

J. Michael Haynie, the school's vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, said in a letter that "it is important that we take reasonable action to minimize the impact of COVID infections" with finals and commencement fast approaching.

The University of Rochester in upstate New York, the University of Connecticut, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and Columbia University in New York City took a similar approach. Many, like Columbia, noted that their surveillance testing programs were finding more cases.

While many students were eager to mask up, grumbling was emerging.

"We're to the point where we're tired of masks," said Neeraj Sudhakar, a Columbia grad student studying financial engineering. "We probably have a 99% vaccination rate, so at this point I think we just need to move on with the pandemic and treat it as endemic rather than going back to what we were doing the past two years."

Nevada tribe claims desecration as digging begins at site of planned lithium mineBy Kaleb Roedel, KUNR Public Radio

As archaeologists begin excavation work at a site in northern Nevada that could become the largest open-pit lithium mine in the world, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is demanding that the archaeologists, hired by miner Lithium Nevada, halt the dig.

“These sanctioned excavations are inappropriate and they’re unethical,” said Michon Eben, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

The tribe says the site is sacred ground, where their Paiute ancestors were massacred by U.S. cavalry in 1865. They call it “Peehee Mu’huh,” or rotten moon, though it’s more commonly known as Thacker Pass. Last week, the tribe sent a letter to the archaeology firm, Far Western Anthropological Research Group, urging the company to “refuse to participate in the desecration of Thacker Pass for corporate greed.”

A federal judge ruled last fall that historical accounts of the massacre provided by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Oregon-based Burns Paiute Tribe were “too speculative” to warrant blocking the dig. The tribes say that’s because the federal government failed to consult all area tribes who attach religious and cultural significance to Thacker Pass as it rushed to approve the mine before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency in early 2021.

Mine developer Lithium Nevada says it’s working with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes to ensure artifacts are protected and preserved. The company noted that last month it hosted, at the tribes’ request, a training for about 30 tribal members interested in monitoring the archaeological excavations. But the mine itself has the Fort McDermitt community – and other stakeholders – deeply divided.

“We’ve always been committed to doing this the right way and respecting our neighbors,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The mine would tap into the largest-known lithium deposit in the U.S., offering a domestic supply of a key ingredient in electric car batteries.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said in its letter that it doesn’t want archeologists to take any artifacts for any reason. “Taking these artifacts and disturbing the burial sites would constitute yet another shameful chapter in a long history of settlers trying to destroy or commit genocide on Native history and culture,” the letter said.

Center for American Indian Health launches cancer initiative for native communities in SouthwestBy Dave Rosenthal, Boise State Public Radio News

Cancer rates are going down for most Americans – but not for Native people. They also have the lowest cancer survival rate of any racial group in the nation.

Now, a new program from the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health is taking aim at that problem. It wants to find ways to improve screening, diagnosis and treatment for several common cancers.

The center says a big part of the problem is that tribal lands are so vast. Transportation and access are barriers to screening and good care. Cultural taboos and stigma also can be issues. And clinics on reservations often lack treatment services.

The center’s program will focus on breast, colorectal and stomach cancers. It will start in Apache and Navajo communities, but the goal is to find solutions for any tribe.

The initiative is supported by an award from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.