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SAT: Winds continue to fan the wildfires in New Mexico, Hobbs woman arrested after fleeing police, + More

A firefighting plane flies over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)
Thomas Peipert/AP
A firefighting plane flies over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Unprecedented gusts expected to fan wildfires in New MexicoBy Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Weather conditions described as potentially historic were on tap for New Mexico on Saturday and for the next several days as hundreds of firefighters and a fleet of airplanes and helicopters worked feverishly to bolster lines around the largest fire burning in the U.S.

Many families already have been left homeless and thousands of residents have evacuated due to flames that have charred large swaths of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.

Residents on the fringes of the shifting fire front were holding out hope that all the work done over recent days to clear brush, install sprinklers, run hose lines and use bulldozers to scrape lines will keep the fire from reaching the small city of Las Vegas and other villages to the north and south.

"There's uncertainty and there's fear about how the winds are going to affect the fire from day to day," said Elmo Baca, chairman of the Las Vegas Community Foundation. "Once the people are evacuated out of an area, they can't go back, so they're just stuck worrying."

The blaze has blackened more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers) over the last few weeks.

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

Nationwide, close to 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time this much fire had been reported across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have combined to worsen the threat of wildfire.

Forested areas in southern New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado also saw an early start with blazes forcing evacuations and destroying homes last month.

Incident Commander Dave Bales said firefighters working in northeastern New Mexico have been focused on protecting homes and other structures that hold generations of sacred memories.

"It's hard when I see so many people displaced," he said, noting that many hugs have been shared around town.

The crews have seen extreme wind events before that usually last a day, maybe two. But Bales said this event could last five or more days with gusts topping 50 to 60 mph (80 to 96 kph). He also warned that flames could be carried up to a mile away.

"This is an extreme wind event that is unprecedented," Bales said.

Another large wildfire burning in New Mexico was within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation's key facilities for nuclear research and future production of plutonium components for nuclear weapons.

Crews have burned vegetation ahead of the fire in an effort to reduce its intensity and the potential for spot fires. At the lab, water tankers, a helicopter and heavy equipment are in position and firefighters will patrol the perimeter if flames gets closer.

Some nuclear watchdog groups and environmentalists have raised concerns about containers of nuclear waste on lab property. That includes six shipments of 109 containers awaiting transport to the federal government's underground waste repository, state officials said.

Lab officials said Friday that radiological and other potentially hazardous materials are stored in containers engineered and tested to withstand extreme environments, including heat from fire.

Hobbs woman who fled in police car after shooting arrestedAssociated Press

A woman who reportedly stole a police vehicle after the man she was with engaged in a shootout with Hobbs police in February has been arrested, police announced Friday.

Police looking for 28-year-old Janessa Perez went to a Hobbs home Friday afternoon and saw her peeking out the back door. Officers surrounded the house and she surrendered.

Officers have been looking for Perez since Feb. 23, when a man in a vehicle police thought was stranded ran away and exchanged gunfire with officers. The man was killed and an officer was wounded.

Perez was handcuffed in a police vehicle while officers tried to help as 27-year-old Daniel Ramirez when she managed to drive it away. She crashed it a shot while later, ran away and has been sought ever since. Ramirez died at a hospital, and the officer suffered only minor wounds.

Perez was booked into the city jail on multiple arrest warrants.

Fire-ravaged New Mexico villages cling to faith, 'querencia'By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Eileen Celestina Garcia raced down the mountain that overlooks her parents' ranch home in northern New Mexico where friends and family have gathered for decades and where she has sat countless times among the stillness of the Ponderosa pines.

A wildfire was raging and Garcia knew she had just minutes to reach her parents and ensure they evacuated in time. Her hands grazed the trees as she spoke to them, thinking the least she could do is offer them gratitude and prayer in case they weren't there when she returned.

"You're trying not to panic — maybe it's not real — just asking for miracles, asking for it not to affect our valley and stop," she said.

Like many New Mexico families, Garcia's is deep-rooted not only in the land but in their Catholic faith. As the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. marches across the high alpine forests and grasslands of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, many in its path have pleaded with God for intervention in the form of rain and calm winds, and protection for their neighbors and beloved landscape.

They've invoked St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, the Virgin Mary as the blessed mother and the various patron saints of scattered villages. The fire has marched for several weeks across more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers), destroying dozens of homes and forcing thousands of families to evacuate.

Favorable winds recently helped firefighters, but conditions are expected to worsen over the weekend, with consecutive days of red flag warnings. Forecasters warned of potentially historic conditions.

"There's not going to be any letup in these winds," said John Pendergrast, an air resource adviser on the fire.

During trying times, the largely Hispanic working-class neighborhoods here also rely on community and the lessons of those who came before them. Simply put, it's querencia — a love of home or attachment to a place.

Some described fleeing the wildfire and imagining the faces of their neighbors in the lush valleys who they've helped with baling hay, fixing cars or harvesting firewood.

"One of my neighbors described it as seeing the mountains around us burn is really like seeing a loved one burn," said Fidel Trujillo, whose family evacuated from the tiny town of Mora. "And I don't think that's any kind of exaggeration."

Religion is infused in homes across the mountains, where crosses hang above many doors. Elected officials and fire managers frequently credited prayer when winds calmed enough to allow firefighters to get a better handle on the blaze. They prayed even more when things got tough. Some started novenas, or nine-day prayers, and encouraged family and friends to join in.

The preservation of faith in this region was somewhat out of necessity. The Spanish settled the area centuries ago, but the Catholic Church as an institution was far away. Even now, deacons and priests rotate among the mission churches for Mass or to perform sacraments. People like Trujillo and his wife serve as mayordomos, or caretakers of those churches.

Also layered on the landscape are historic Spanish land grants, large ranches, traditional irrigation systems known as acequias, and moradas, which are meeting spaces for a religious brotherhood known as penitentes.

Prayer is intertwined in everything, Trujillo says, something that was passed down through generations. His dad has marked spots along hiking trails with crosses as a reminder to "pause, pray and give thanks," Trujillo said.

By the grace of God, he said, his father-in-law's ranch house in El Carmen survived the fire, and so did his childhood home in Ledoux. He's unsure about his current residence in Mora amid a valley prized for its Christmas trees.

"Sometimes when things are beyond your control, you have to lean on that faith," Trujillo said. "That's what faith is."

For many New Mexicans, regardless of where they live, the pull back home is strong.

Felicia Ortiz, president of the Nevada board of education, recently bought 36 acres (14.5 hectares) behind one of the mission churches to maintain roots in New Mexico. The land burned, but she's hopeful some trees remain.

Nearby at her childhood home in Rociada, she remembers stomping on the dirt to make adobe bricks and peeling logs her family harvested to build a barn. She and her sister skated on a frozen pond in the yard and sledded down the hills. They watched the full moon rise over a tree next to their playhouse as her dad played "Bad Moon Rising" on vinyl.

Flames destroyed the house.

"I look at the pictures, and it looks like something out of a horror movie," Ortiz said. "The tree that I had a swing on, it's just a stick. The big piñon tree where we picked piñon, it's like palitos (little sticks) now."

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo called northern New Mexicans physically, emotionally and spiritually strong — "a breed of our own." Many residents invoked the teachings and resilient spirits of their ancestors when offering up their homes to evacuees, feeding them, rescuing animals and starting fundraisers.

Garcia and her 9-year-old son, Leoncio, took refuge during the coronavirus pandemic at her parents' ranch in Sapello and haven't left. It's where her family milked cows and made cheese to sell to neighbors. It's where she sat among the trees overlooking the valley and dreamt about going to college and helping her family.

More recently, the trees gave her the solace she needed to write a chapter in a book about female trailblazers.

When fleeing, she grabbed pictures of relatives and a bag with religious items that she carried on a 100-mile (160-kilometer) pilgrimage she organized and walked for 10 years.

"If our ranch and our trees are still there, what I keep seeing is an opportunity to offer space for healing for folks to come and sit with the trees that they've lost," she said.

New Mexico regulators adopt clean car ruleAssociated Press

New Mexico regulators have adopted more stringent motor vehicle emissions standards as part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's push against climate change.

The rule was adopted Thursday by the state Environmental Improvement Board following a joint public hearing with air quality officials who oversee the Albuquerque metro area, which is New Mexico's most populated region.

Following in the footsteps of California, the new rule will take effect July 1. It will require reduced emissions in cars, trucks and SUVs starting with the 2026 model year.

The state is calling for more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to be sold in New Mexico. Meanwhile, utility officials are still working on plans to ensure they have enough capacity to meet future electricity demands as more solar and battery storage facilities are brought online to replace coal-fired power plants.

Despite criticism by some interest groups, state officials are touting the new clean car mandate as a way to eliminate an estimated 130,000 tons of greenhouse gases and over 1,700 tons of ozone-forming pollution in the state by 2050.

Transportation is the nation's largest source of greenhouse gases and among the top sources in New Mexico.

Environmentalists praised the rule, saying it will boost the number of electric vehicles available for sale in New Mexico. They also project that charging vehicles will save drivers in fuel costs over the next three decades.

The rule is part of the state and city of Albuquerque's respective ozone attainment initiatives. State officials say seven counties — including Bernalillo County — are nearing problematic ground-level ozone levels, which cause respiratory illnesses and heart attacks.

Some auto dealers have said they shouldn't be mandated to carry a certain volume of electric cars, and other critics have raised concerns about whether electric vehicles could pose financial hardship for rural residents.

State officials have said the rule will not affect existing vehicles, used vehicles for sale, farm equipment or other off-road vehiclesa or heavy-duty vehicles such as semi trucks.