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WED: Massive New Mexico wildfire leaps ahead with flying embers, + More

Spring Wildfires
Cedar Attanasio/AP
Reddened by wildfire smoke, the sun is seen reflected off windows at the train station in Las Vegas, N.M., on Saturday, May 7, 2022. Area residents have been on and off of evacuation orders of the past month as fires grow and move with intense and unpredictable winds. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Massive New Mexico wildfire leaps ahead with flying embers - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The largest wildfire burning in the United States was heading toward mountain resort towns in northern New Mexico on Wednesday, prompting officials to issue another set of warnings for more people to evacuate as the fast-moving fire picked up momentum.

The blaze was racing up steep slopes and along exposed ridge lines, with the wind tossing hot embers further into unburned territory giving the fire an even bigger foothold on the tinder-dry landscape.

After growing more than 50 square miles in a single day, the fire had charred more than 370 square miles by Wednesday morning. That number was growing given the challenges firefighters faced during the afternoon hours.

Evacuations were ordered for villages south of the resort town of Angel Fire, where residents were told to also be packed and ready to go.

The towering plume of smoke created by the raging wildfire could be seen hundreds of miles away, but for the well-known tourist enclave of Taos just to the west, it was more unnerving.

"I think everyone is a little on edge," Karina Armijo, a town spokeswoman, said Wednesday, adding that she's been busy fielding calls from people who are wondering whether it's still safe to visit. "It's hard to say what's going to happen a week from now versus three weeks from now — or even tomorrow."

In winter, the challenging ski slopes just north of town draw people from around the world. Just last month, the Taos ski valley hosted the World Pro Ski Tour's championship races. Art galleries, adobe churches and a rich history of Hispanic and Native American culture are the attractions in warmer months along with the aspen-covered biking and hiking trails that traverse the region.

Authorities stressed there was no immediate threat to communities near Taos, but fire modeling based on terrain, weather conditions and the amount of dry fuel indicated flames would continue marching north and east.

The fire already has burned through a forested landscape held sacred by its rural residents, many losing homes that have been in their families for generations. Some residents allowed to return Tuesday found only charred rubble. Others were more fortunate as the flames skirted their homes.

Firefighters were working to protect buildings around the towns of Mora and Holman and in smaller villages to the north, while authorities closed many roads in the area due to firefighting activity, smoke and fire danger.

"This is tough firefighting business right here," fire Incident Commander Dave Bales said in a briefing. "This is not easy, especially in the fuel types we're in, in the Ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, even down into the grass. When we can't fly aircraft, when we can't get people on the direct edge of the fire, when it's spotting over us, that's a huge concern for us."

Crews have been trying to direct flames around homes on both ends of the fire — bulldozing firebreaks, putting up sprinklers, clearing trees and raking pine needles. More than 1,800 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to the blaze.

A federal disaster already has been declared because of the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire that escaped containment after it was set in early April to clear brush and small trees so they could not serve as wildfire fuel. That fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later.

Crews also were battling a smaller fire near Los Alamos National Laboratory, a key government facility for nuclear research that has been tapped to ramp up production of plutonium components for the nation's nuclear arsenal. Most employees began working remotely this week as the lab and adjacent town prepared for possible evacuations as a precaution.

Crews working that blaze have been using heavy machinery to clear out vegetation and build more fire lines in hopes of keeping the flames from moving closer to the community.

US finds 500 Native American boarding school deaths so far - Associated Press

A first-of-its-kind federal study of Native American boarding schools that for over a century sought to assimilate Indigenous children into white society has identified more than 500 student deaths at the institutions, but officials say that figure could grow exponentially as research continues.

The Interior Department report released Wednesday expands to more than 400 the number of schools that were known to have operated across the U.S. for 150 years, starting in the early 19th century and coinciding with the removal of many tribes from their ancestral lands. It identified the deaths in records for about 20 of the schools.

The dark history of Native American boarding schools — where children were forced from their families, prohibited from speaking their languages and often abused — has been felt deeply across Indian Country and through generations.

Many children never returned home, and the Interior Department said that with further investigation the number of known student deaths could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands. Causes included illness, accidental injuries and abuse, officials say.

"Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system," said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose paternal grandparents were sent to boarding school for several years as kids.

The agency is in the process of poring through thousands of boxes containing more than 98 million pages of records, with help from many Indigenous people who have had to work through their own trauma and pain. Accounting for the number of deaths will be difficult because records weren't always kept.

A second volume of the report will cover burial sites as well as the federal government's financial investment in the schools and the impacts of the boarding schools on Indigenous communities, the Interior Department said. It has so far identified at least 53 burial sites at or near boarding schools, not all of which have marked graves.'

Tribal leaders have pressed the agency to ensure that any children's remains that are found are properly cared for and delivered back to their tribes, if desired. The burial sites' locations will not be released publicly to prevent them from being disturbed, said Bryan Newland, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

At a news conference Wednesday, Haaland choked back tears as she described how the boarding school era perpetuated poverty, mental health disorders, substance abuse and premature deaths in Indigenous communities.

"Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning," she said. "We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues."

Haaland, who is Laguna, announced an initiative last June to investigate the troubled legacy of boarding schools and uncover the truth about the government's role in them. The 408 schools her agency identified operated in 37 states or territories, many of them in Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.

The Interior Department acknowledged the number of schools identified could change as more data is gathered. The coronavirus pandemic and budget restrictions hindered some of the research over the past year, Newland said.

The U.S. government directly ran some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies to "civilize" Native Americans. The federal government still oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states that serve Native Americans, but the schools' missions are vastly different from the past.

The Interior Department report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities.

Haaland also announced Wednesday a yearlong tour for Interior Department officials that will allow former boarding school students from Native American tribes, Alaska Native villages and Native Hawaiian communities to share their stories as part of a permanent oral history collection.

Boarding school conditions varied across the U.S. and Canada. While some former students have reported positive experiences, children at the schools often were subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut.

Early curricula focused heavily on outdated vocational skills, including homemaking for girls.

A U.S. House subcommittee on Thursday will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after one in Canada. Several church groups are backing the legislation.

Deborah Parker, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, tearfully recalled stories of a boarding school on the Tulalip reservation where she's from that had a small jail cell and a basement where at least one girl routinely was chained to a heater and beaten. She said others hid to shield themselves from abuse.

"I am concerned when we begin to open these doors for our boarding school survivors to come forward and share their stories," she said.

The boarding school coalition, which created an early inventory of the schools and shared its research with the Interior Department, praised Interior's work but noted the agency's authority is limited.

"Our children deserve to be brought home," Parker said. "We are here for their justice. And we will not stop advocating until the United States fully accounts for the genocide committed against Native children."

Film producers defend safety in Alec Baldwin shooting - Associated Press

A film production company is contesting sanctions by New Mexico officials for alleged workplace safety violations on the set of "Rust," where actor and producer Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer in October, according to filings posted Wednesday by state regulators.

Rust Movie Productions is challenging the basis of a $137,000 fine against the company by state occupational safety regulators who say production managers on the set of the Western film failed to follow standard industry protocols for firearms safety.

At a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe on Oct. 21, 2021, Baldwin was pointing a gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins inside a small church during setup for the filming of a scene when it went off, killing Hutchins and wounding the director, Joel Souza.

Baldwin said in a December interview with ABC News that he was pointing the gun at Hutchins at her instruction when it went off without his pulling the trigger.

"The law properly permits producers to delegate such critical functions as firearm safety to experts in that field and does not place such responsibility on producers whose expertise is in arranging financing and contracting for the logistics of filming," Rust Movie Productions said in its filing. The company "did not 'willfully' violate any safety protocol, and in fact enforced all applicable safety protocols."

In April, New Mexico's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau imposed the maximum fine against Rust Movie Productions and distributed a scathing narrative of safety failures, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires of blank ammunition on set prior to the fatal shooting.

The bureau also documented gun safety complaints from crew members that went unheeded and said weapons specialists were not allowed to make decisions about additional safety training.

Rust Movie Productions responded in its filing by saying that misfires prior to the fatal shooting of Hutchins did not violate safety protocols and that "appropriate corrective actions were taken, including briefings of cast and crew."

"In fact, a safety meeting was held the morning of the incident," the company said, apparently referring to the shooting of Hutchins. The filing does not elaborate further.

Rust Movie Productions also is challenging allegations that film set armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed was overburdened, asserting that she had sufficient time to properly inspect and safeguard all firearms and ammunition on set. The production company cites comments by a costume designer who said Reed had "plenty of time" to do her job properly.

State investigators say that Gutierrez Reed was limited to eight paid days as an armorer to oversee weapons and training, and was assigned otherwise to lighter duties as a props assistant. As her time as an armorer ran out, Gutierrez Reed warned a manager and was rebuffed.

The sheriff investigating the fatal film-set shooting has described disorganization and neglected safety measures in the making of the low-budget movie. Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza has said he is waiting on a forensic analysis of the weapon, projectile, fingerprints and more from the FBI and state medical examiners before turning the case over to prosecutors to decide whether criminal charges will be filed.

State findings and sanctions against Rust Movie Productions hold implications for at least five lawsuits that have been filed over the shooting, including a wrongful death suit brought by Hutchins' family against Baldwin and the movie's other producers.

The lawsuit on behalf of widower Matt Hutchins and his 9-year-old son alleges a "callous" disregard in the face of safety complaints on the set.

The state fines would apply to a film with a budget of about $7 million. Baldwin was assigned a salary of $250,000 as an actor and producer and may have put some of that money back into the production.

Rust Movie Productions says in its filing that all personnel on set were instructed that they had authority to cease activities at any time until safety concerns were resolved, with film union stewards on site to ensure compliance with labor-union safety protocols.

New Mexico fire costs top $65M; blaze moves closer to Taos - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Many homes near America's largest wildfire survived the latest barrage of howling winds and erratic flames but New Mexico's governor said Tuesday the risk of more destruction is high and that the long-term costs of recovering from the massive blaze will soar.

Two more days of strong winds and dangerously bone-dry conditions are in the forecast before some relief is expected Friday.

Crews were most concerned Tuesday night about the potential for the massive fire east of Santa Fe to spread farther north toward rural towns and mountain resort communities closer to Taos — about 20 miles from its current northern edge.

Gusty winds that grounded aerial attacks Tuesday were pushing flames that direction along the Sangre de Cristo Range on the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains stretching out of Colorado.

The main highway north from Holman to Taos was closed and additional communities were placed on alert for potential evacuations.

"It is very active. This is a big push, a lot of energy right now," fire spokesman Todd Abel warned Tuesday night.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a briefing earlier Tuesday that she has not received any reports in recent days of widespread damage to homes amid the latest round of fierce winds that fanned the blaze and created challenges for firefighting crews.

Crews have been trying to direct flames around homes in numerous small villages on the northern and southern ends of the fire — bulldozing firebreaks, putting up sprinklers, clearing trees and raking pine needles. A force of nearly 1,800 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to the blaze, including specially trained teams.

The cost of fighting the blaze and another smaller fire burning near Los Alamos National Laboratory has topped $65 million.

The cost is expected to grow with wind predicted through Wednesday, and Lujan Grisham said the cost to reconstruct homes, prevent post-fire flooding and restore the forest charred by the larger fire after it is out will likely reach billions of dollars.

"When you think about rebuilding communities, it is not an overnight process," Lujan Grisham said. "So we should be thinking in terms of significant resources and those resources in my view should largely be borne by the federal government given the situation."

The nearly 320-square-mile wildfire has burned about 300 structures, including homes, since it started last month. Some areas remain under evacuation orders, but authorities on Monday started letting some residents on the fire's eastern flank return home.

A federal disaster already has been declared due to the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire set in early April that escaped containment. The flames merged with a separate fire a couple of weeks later, and as of Tuesday the jagged perimeter stretched more than 356 miles .

Structure protection was focused Tuesday night around Mora and Holman, where Highway 518 north to Taos was closed. Authorities stressed there was no immediate threat to communities around Taos but new alerts about potential evacuations stretched as far north as the Angel Fire ski resort east of Taos.

"Coming up toward Taos, Black Lake, Angel Fire, there is the possibility with the models we are running that those areas are going to see fire," Abel, an operations chief on the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, said at a briefing Tuesday evening.

The governor said she'd challenge anyone who didn't believe the federal government should accept significant liability.

"It's negligent to consider a prescribed burn in the windy season in a state that is under an extreme drought warning," she said.

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation and others have called for an investigation. While forest officials have yet to release planning documents related to the prescribed fire, they have said forecasted weather conditions were within parameters for the project.

Meanwhile, the smaller blaze burning in the Jemez Mountains prompted officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear research is conducted, and the nearby town of Los Alamos to prepare for evacuations as a precaution.

Nearly 900 people were fighting that fire, with its price tag nearing $16 million on Tuesday.

Towering columns of smoke from both fires could be seen from miles away as the winds picked up Tuesday afternoon.

Wind and low humidity levels continue to be big wildfire threats around the West as the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for extreme fire danger in much of New Mexico and parts of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Forecasters said New Mexico is outpacing most other recent years for the number of red flag days in April and so far this month.

Crews also were battling smaller fires elsewhere in New Mexico and Arizona.

US Interior to release report on Indigenous boarding schools - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The U.S. Interior Department says it will release a report Wednesday that will begin to uncover the truth about the federal government's past oversight of Native American boarding schools.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced an initiative last June to investigate the troubled legacy of boarding schools, which the government established and supported for decades. Indigenous children routinely were taken from their communities and forced into schools that sought to strip them of their language and culture.

Catholic, Protestant and other churches also led some of the schools, backed by U.S. laws and policies.

The Interior report was prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada that brought back painful memories for Indigenous communities. Haaland has said her agency's report will identify past schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students.

The first volume of the report will be released Wednesday. The Interior Department hasn't said how many volumes were produced.

At least 367 boarding schools for Native Americans operated in the U.S., many of them in Oklahoma where tribes were relocated, Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico and South Dakota, according to research by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Children at the schools often were subjected to military-style discipline and had their long hair cut. Early curricula focused heavily on vocational skills, including homemaking for girls. Some children never returned home.

Accounting for the number of children who died at the schools has been difficult because records weren't always kept. Ground penetrating radar has been used in some places to search for remains.

The boarding school coalition has said Interior's work will be an important step for the U.S. in reckoning with its role in the schools, but noted the agency's authority is limited.

Later this week, a U.S. House subcommittee will hear testimony on a bill to create a truth and healing commission modeled after one in Canada. Several church groups are backing the legislation.

Governor promises a temporary halt to prescribed burns while wildfires rage in New Mexico – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said yesterdat that it was QUOTE-“negligent” for the United States Forest Service to ignite a prescribed burn in early April, and that she has received assurances that there will be no more prescribed burns in New Mexico in the short-term — at least not while fires continue to rage here.

Source New Mexico’s Patrick Lohmann reports a Santa Fe National Forest crew on April 6th ignited what was supposed to be a 12-hundred-acre prescribed burn south of Mora.

It quickly jumped out of the burn area and caused the Hermits Peak wildfire, which has since merged with the Calf Canyon fire and burned more than 200-thousand acres.

At a news briefing, Lujan Grisham said she shares the anger felt by many New Mexicans about the prescribed burn gone awry. But she called it a QUOTE-“earnest mistake,” and one she expects the federal government to pay for in addition to federal disaster relief, saying she thinks it’s likely that Congress will accept that there is QUOTE “significant federal liability”

The federal Forest Service has said it is doing a review to determine what went wrong, but have refused to provide documents or additional details about the decision to ignite the fire.

New Mexico voting starts to pick GOP challenger for governor - Associated Press

Early voting started Tuesday across New Mexico ahead of the June 7 primary Election Day to determine the Republican nominee for governor and Democratic nominees for attorney general and other statewide offices.

Election officials began mailing absentee ballots to local voters and county clerk's offices opened their doors to in-person voting. Expanded early voting begins May 21 at more polling locations.

Five Republicans are vying for the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as she seeks a second term. They include former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti, state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences and Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block.

Democratic voters will select a nominee for the state's top law enforcement post as Attorney General Hector Balderas completes his second term and term limits prevent him from serving longer. Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raúl Torrez is competing against lawyer and State Auditor Brian Colón, who is also from Albuquerque. The winner will compete against Republican attorney and U.S. Marine veteran Jeremy Michael Gay of Gallup.

New Mexico requires affiliation with a major party in order to vote in a primary.

But recent changes in state election law make it easier for unaffiliated voters to participate in the primary if they chose to affiliate with a major party, even briefly.

Under same-day voter registration procedures, people who belong to minor parties or decline affiliation can still participate in the statewide primary by picking a major party affiliation on site at election-day polling places, county clerks' offices and some early voting locations.

State election regulators have said that the registration-update process can take as little as five minutes and is reversible after people vote in primaries.

People already registered to vote for major parties — Republican, Democratic or Libertarian — are prohibited from switching parties during the election period that lasts from Tuesday through June 7.

People who decline to state party preferences or belong to minor political parties account for nearly one-fourth of registered voters in New Mexico.

How to vote in the NM primary in a county affected by wildfire – By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

Early voting for New Mexico’s primary elections started yesterday with a message of urgency for the thousands displaced by forest fires burning in their communities: Vote now.

Source New Mexico’s Shaun Griswold reports the Secretary of State’s Office is urging anyone who left their home due to fires and who wants to vote in the primary election to vote in-person at a county clerk’s office, or request an absentee ballot that can be mailed to their current location.

For the thousands displaced, that location could be a shelter or a relative’s house, even if it’s out of state.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, as long as the absentee ballot application is submitted before June 2nd, a ballot will be delivered within two to three business days.

People do not have to change their voter registration information if they are requesting a ballot to be delivered to a place that is not their home address.

The Secretary of State’s Office is working with USPS to coordinate the delivery of ballots that were already mailed to people who have fled their homes, that’s according to spokesperson Alex Curtas.

He says more information will be released in the coming days on how to safely get ballots in the hands of voters who submitted requests before they evacuated.

Since the Mora County Clerk’s Office is located in the middle of an evacuation zone, it has temporarily moved 60 miles northwest to the Wagon Mound City Hall.