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KUNM News Update

THURS: Fire crews close in around massive New Mexico wildfire as Biden declares disaster, + more

burned buildings near las vegas wildfire
Cedar Attanasio/AP
/
AP
A burned building is seen in the Pendaries Village following a wildfire near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames are marching across more of New Mexico's tinder-dry mountainsides, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state's psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to keep new wildfires from growing. The big blaze burning near the community of Las Vegas has charred more than 217 square miles. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Fire crews close in around massive New Mexico wildfire - Associated Press

Firefighters in New Mexico took advantage of diminished winds Thursday to build more fire lines and clear combustible brush near homes close to the fringes of the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. They did so ahead of what is expected to be several consecutive days of intense hot, dry and extremely windy weather that could fan the blaze.

The fire has marched across 258 square miles of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, destroying dozens of homes and prompting evacuations for thousands of families, many of whom have called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains home since their Spanish ancestors first settled the region centuries ago.

President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to the areas devastated by fire since early April. The aid includes grants for temporary housing and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for people and businesses.

The start of the conflagration has been traced in part to a preventive fire initiated by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce flammable vegetation. The blaze escaped control, merging with another wildfire of unknown origin.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández on Thursday pressed a top Forest Service official to fully investigate the decision to start the "controlled burn" and disclose whether the agency considered the effects of climate change and a mega-drought afflicting western states.

"What protocols or controls were in place to make sure a controlled burn does not get out of hand? Did the U.S. Forest Service follow these protocols," the congresswoman wrote to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.

Evacuations that have now lasted weeks have taken a physical and emotional toll on residents. Classes were canceled at area schools for the week, some businesses in the small northeastern city of Las Vegas have closed due to staff shortages and some customers of the electric cooperative that serves surrounding areas have had no power for weeks.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said firetrucks, a fleet of aircraft and other equipment have been brought in to the area to corral the flames and "we're ready for anything that does come."

But it's still too soon to let people return to outlying areas that burned earlier because there are pockets of unburned brush and trees that can serve as fuel for the blaze within the fire's perimeter.

"We've come to this crossroads on a few different occasions, where we were feeling good about it and we come up to a wind event and it hasn't went as planned," Lopez said.

Relatively calm and cool weather in recent days has helped firefighters to keep the fire in check around its shifting fronts.

Bulldozers scraped more fire lines Thursday while crews conducted controlled burning to to clear vegetation and prevent it from igniting. Aircraft also dropped more fire retardant in preparation for the heavy winds predicted this weekend.

Gusts up to 45 mph are expected Saturday afternoon along with above-normal temperatures and "abysmally low" humidity that make for extreme fire danger, said Todd Shoemake, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. "Sunday and Monday are probably looking to be even worse."

Nearly 1,300 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to fight the fire, while about 2,000 wildland firefighters are battling other blazes elsewhere in New Mexico and around the U.S.

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept within about 5 miles of facilities at the U.S. nuclear research complex.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, according to scientists and fire experts. Fire officials also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

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Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

US panel to focus on Native American missing, slain cases - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Nearly 40 law enforcement officials, tribal leaders, social workers and survivors of violence have been named to a federal commission tasked with helping improve how the government addresses a decades-long crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaska Natives, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Thursday.

The committee's creation means that for the first time, the voices guiding the Interior and Justice departments in the effort will include people most affected by the epidemic, said Haaland, the first Native American to lead a cabinet department.

She said the panel includes members with diverse experiences and backgrounds, representing communities from Alaska and Washington to Arizona, Oklahoma and Michigan. It will craft recommendations on how the government can better tackle a disproportionately high number of unsolved cases in which Native Americans and Alaska Natives have disappeared or been killed.

"It will take a focused effort — and time — to unravel the many threads that contribute to the alarming rates of these cases," Haaland said during a virtual event.

Some members of Congress have expressed concern that work to address the crisis as required under the law isn't on track. In the case of appointing members to the commission, federal officials are more than a year behind schedule.

The Not Invisible Act, signed into law in October 2020, required that the commission be named by February 2021 and that findings be made public last month.

Another law signed around the same time directed the U.S. Attorney General's Office to find ways to increase cooperation among law enforcement agencies, provide tribes resources and address data collection. Savanna's Act was named for 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who went missing while pregnant in 2017 before her body was found in a North Dakota River.

U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who faces a tough reelection campaign; Jon Tester of Montana; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the vice-chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, outlined their concerns in a letter earlier this week.

"Both of these laws outlined specific time frames and deadlines for implementation; however, it is unclear which provisions have been undertaken, and it appears that almost every deadline has been missed," the lawmakers wrote.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Thursday the naming of the commission marks a major milestone that follows ongoing work by a separate steering committee to marshal more federal resources to address the problem.

She also announced the creation of a new position within the executive office of U.S. attorneys that will be responsible for working with victims and families to ensure they have a voice while navigating the criminal justice system.

Federal officials also plugged work being done by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which now has 17 offices across the country that have at least one agent dedicated to solving cases involving missing or slain Native Americans.

As for the 37-member commission, its mission includes tracking and reporting data on missing-person, homicide and human trafficking cases and increasing information sharing with tribal governments on violent crimes investigations and other prosecutions on Indian lands.

The commission is expected to hold hearings and gather testimony before making recommendations to the Interior and Justice departments to improve coordination among agencies and to establish best practices for state, tribal and federal law enforcement. The panel also is tasked with boosting resources for survivors and victims' families.

Meanwhile, some communities already have created their own response plans to address the problem. In New Mexico, officials on Thursday rolled out the state's plan, highlighting goals that include building more support services for survivors and families, doing more outreach on education and prevention and leveraging resources for tribal judicial systems.

Fawn Sharp, president of the tribal advocacy group National Congress of American Indians, said during Thursday's virtual event that although funding for law enforcement in Indian Country has increased in recent years, it doesn't come close to meeting the needs.

She pointed to research showing that failure to provide funding undermined the ability to provide adequate public safety in tribal communities.

"Having the authority to hold perpetrators accountable is an important first step, but tribal nations cannot follow through to hold bad actors accountable without adequate and consistent funding for tribal justice systems," she said.

Other advocates said they were hopeful the federal commission's recommendations will cover the need for safe housing for victims of domestic violence and other social services and health care that could help prevent violence.

President declares disaster in New Mexico wildfire zone – Cedar Attanasio, Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Firefighters slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the U.S. as heavy winds relented Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to remote stretches of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez announced the presidential disaster declaration during an evening briefing by the U.S. Forest Service about efforts to contain the sprawling wildfire in northeastern New Mexico, which has fanned out across 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.

“It will help us do that rebuilding and it will help us with the expenses and the hardship that people are facing right now,” the congresswoman said. “We're glad it happened this quickly.”

Fire bosses said they are seizing upon an interlude of relatively calm and cool weather to keep the fire from pushing any closer to the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas and other villages scattered along the fire’s shifting fronts. Airplanes and helicopters dropped slurries of red fire retardant from the sky, as ground crews cleared timber and brush to starve the fire along crucial fronts.

Bulldozers for days have been scraping fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, population 13,000, while crews have been conducting burns to clear adjacent vegetation. Aircraft dropped more fire retardant as a second line of defense along a ridge just west of town in preparation for intense winds expected over the weekend.

An estimated 15,500 homes in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border Las Vegas have been affected by mandatory evacuations. The tally of homes destroyed by the fire stands around 170.

The president's disaster declaration releases emergency funds to recovery efforts in three counties in northeastern New Mexico where fires still rage, as well as portions of southern New Mexico where wind-driven blazes killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes in mid-April.

The aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for individuals and businesses, a statement from the White House said.

Local law enforcement officials acknowledged the physical and emotion toll of prolonged evacuations. Las Vegas Police Chief Antonio Salazar said his officers would provide “burglary patrols” of evacuated areas and help maintain order at a local Walmart as people line up to purchase supplies.

“Repopulation, that's one thing we're very interested in,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said. “Everybody wants to get back home.”

Dan Pearson, a fire behavior specialist with the federal government, said weather forecasters are anticipating two days of relatively light winds before the return of strong spring gales.

“Our prayers are working because we've had advantageous winds throughout the fire area today,” he said. “We'll take advantage of this fact over the next few days. ... What we can do is build resilient pockets."

The fire was contained across just 20% of its perimeter. Its flames on Wednesday were about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from Las Vegas, where schools were closed as residents braced for possible evacuation.

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept Wednesday within about 5 miles (8 kilometers) of facilities at the U.S. national defense laboratory based in Los Alamos.

Fire crews worked to widen a road that stands between the fire and Los Alamos while clearing out underbrush and treating the area with fire retardant.

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 areas where 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.

New Mexico seeks opportunity in Texas border disruptions - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico is highlighting its support for proposals that would route an international rail line through its Santa Teresa border crossing, capitalizing on Mexico's unease with disruptions along the Texas portion of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Mexico had considered a route through Texas, but in recent days officials have said they can no longer rely on that state. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, in April required all commercial trucks from Mexico to undergo extra inspections, tying up traffic and causing millions in losses.

The administration of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that it will send a delegation of economic development and transportation officials to Mexico City next week to explore opportunities to expand commercial infrastructure at the San Jeronimo-Santa Teresa crossing, about 20 miles west of El Paso, Texas.

New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes said the state has already requested a U.S. presidential permit for a rail bypass route through Santa Teresa. Separately, she said a study on expanding infrastructure at the New Mexico crossing is near completion.

She said recent disruptions at Texas crossings change the outlook for Santa Teresa.

"They have issues with pollution and wait times and security," Keyes said of Texas' border entry points. "We have the opportunity to really envision what a dignified port of entry would look like."

Mexico's Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier was more forceful last week on the fate of a proposed rail line linking the Pacific coast port of Mazatlan in Mexico's Sinaloa state with the U.S. and Canada.

"I don't think we're going to use Texas anymore because we cannot put all our eggs in one basket and be held hostage to those who want to use trade as a political issue," Clouthier told a business conference. "We are going to look for another connection point."

Mexican diplomats followed up Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and touted a rail line linking Mexican seaports on the Pacific with the San Jeronimo-Santa Teresa crossing in New Mexico.

Some truckers have reported waiting more than 30 hours to cross during the Texas state inspections. Others blocked one of the world's busiest trade bridges in protest.

Abbott, who is up for reelection in November and has made the border his top issue, fully lifted the inspections after reaching agreements with neighboring Mexican states that outline new commitments to border security.

Las Vegas ex-pastor, teacher pleads guilty in child sex case – Associated Press

A church pastor and former elementary school teacher from Las Vegas has pleaded guilty to a child sex crime in a plea agreement that avoids trial and is expected to get him two to 20 years in state prison when he is sentenced Aug. 15.

Reynaldo Cruz Crespin, 59, pleaded guilty Monday in Clark County District Court to attempted lewdness with a child under 14, court records show. Several other charges were dismissed.

Crespin also may be sentenced to lifetime supervision as a sex offender, under terms of his plea deal.

Crespin was arrested in February in Albuquerque, New Mexico, more than a week after he was named in a warrant in Las Vegas on multiple charges including sexual assault involving children under ages 16 and 14.

KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reported that Crespin taught second grade from 2016 until this year and was a pastor at New Horizon Christian Church in northeast Las Vegas. The television station said none of the charges related to his students.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Crespin and his wife, Marivic Crespin, founded the church in 2002. She filed a lawsuit in February seeking custody of their children.

A telephone call to the church on Wednesday reached a disconnected number.