FRI: LANL peers into future of wildfire as it's menaced by flames, + More
Menaced by flames, nuclear lab peers into future of wildfire - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Public schools were closed and evacuation bags packed this week as a stubborn wildfire crept within a few miles of the city of Los Alamos and its companion U.S. national security lab — where assessing apocalyptic threats is a specialty and wildland fire is a beguiling equation.
People preparing to evacuate included a team of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory who are tapping supercomputers to peer into the future of wildfires in the American West, where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fire.
The research and partnerships eventually could yield reliable predictions that shape the way vast tracks of national forests are thinned — or selectively burned — to ward off disastrously hot conflagrations that can quickly overrun cities, sterilize soil and forever alter ecosystems.
"This actually is something that we're really trying to leverage to look for ways to deal with fire in the future," said Rod Linn, a senior lab scientist who leads efforts to create a supercomputing tool that predicts the outcome of fires in specific terrain and conditions.
The high stakes in the research are on prominent display during the furious start of spring wildfire season, which includes a blaze that has inched steadily toward Los Alamos National Laboratory, triggering preparations for a potential evacuation.
The lab is one of two U.S. sites gearing up to manufacture plutonium cores for use in nuclear weapons. Laboratory officials say critical infrastructure is well safeguarded from the fire, which spans 67 square miles.
Still, scientists are ready.
"We have our bags packed, cars loaded, kids are home from school — it's kind of a crazy day," said Adam Atchley, a father of two and laboratory hydrologist who studies wildfire ecology.
Wildfires that reach the Los Alamos National Laboratory increase the risk — however slightly — of disbursing chemical waste and radionuclides such as plutonium through the air or in the ashes carried away by runoff after a fire.
Mike McNaughton, an environmental health physicist at Los Alamos, acknowledges that chemical and radiological waste was blatantly mishandled in the early years of the laboratory, which emerged out of the World War II effort to design nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project.
"People had a war to win and they were not careful," McNaughton said. "Emissions now are very, very small compared with the historical emissions."
Dave Fuehne, the laboratory's team leader for air emissions measurement, says a network of about 25 air monitors encircle the facility. Additional high-volume monitors were deployed as fire broke out in April.
Trees and underbrush on the campus are removed manually — 3,500 tons over the course of the last four years, said Jim Jones, manager of the lab's Wildland Fire Mitigation Project.
"We don't do any burning," Jones said. "It's not worth the risk."
Flames have also destroyed mansions on a California hilltop and chewed through more than 422 square miles of tinder-dry mountainsides of northeastern New Mexico.
That fire in Sangre de Cristo Mountain range is the largest burning in the U.S., with thousands of residents still displaced as it continued its march Friday through thick ponderosa pine forests, destroying at least 170 homes in accessible areas that have been surveyed. In Colorado, authorities said Friday one person died in a fire that destroyed eight mobile homes in Colorado Springs.
Atchley says he's contributing to research aimed at better understanding and preventing the most destructive wildfires, superheated blazes that leap through the upper crowns of mature pine trees. He says climate change is an unmistakable factor.
"It's increasing the wildfire burn window. … The wildfire season is year-round," Atchley said. "And this is happening not only in the United States, but in Australia and Indonesia and around the world."
He's not alone in suggesting that the answer may be more frequent fires of lower intensity that are set deliberately to mimic a cycle of burning and regeneration that may have take place every 2-6 years in New Mexico before the arrival of Europeans.
"What we're trying to do at Los Alamos is figure out how do you implement prescribed fire safely ... given that it's exceedingly hard with climate change," he said.
Examples of intentional prescribed burns that escaped control include the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that swept through residential areas of Los Alamos and across 12 square miles of the laboratory — more than one-quarter of the campus. The fire destroying more than 230 homes and 45 structures at the lab. In 2011, a larger and faster-moving fire burned fringes of the lab.
Atchley said the West's forests can be thought of and measured as one giant reserve that stores carbon and can help hold climate change in check — if extreme fires can be limited.
Land managers say expansive U.S. national forests can't be thinned by hand and machine alone.
Linn, the physicist, says wildfire modeling software is being shared with land managers at the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the Geological Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, for preliminary testing to see if can make prescribed fires easier to predict and control.
"We don't advocate anybody using any of these models blindly," he said. "Were in that essential phase of building those relationships with land managers and helping them to begin to make it their model as well."
Governor seeks more federal assistance for fires – By Megan Kamerick, KUNM News
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is seeking additional federal assistance under a disaster declaration to cover losses from widespread wildfire activity in the state.
In a letter to President Joe Biden Friday the governor thanked him for federal resources made available through his major disaster declaration, but says the state needs more.
Lujan Grisham also wants the federal government to cover 100% of costs under the declared disaster, rather than the typical 75%/25% federal-state split. She noted the Hermits Peak Fire began as a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service.
The increasing costs to save lives and protect “homes, property and heritage” continue to exceed the state’s capacity, Lujan Grisham wrote.
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has burned more than 422 square miles. It follows the McBride Fire in southern New Mexico in April. The governor notes that thousands of New Mexicans have evacuated and many have lost their homes. Two people died in in the McBride Fire.
Two decades of devastating fires, exceptional drought and ongoing extreme winds present a “destructive and unprecedented challenge for the state” Lujan Grisham wrote.
Family demands murder charge for officer in fatal shooting – Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press
A Las Cruces family is demanding that the police officer who fatally shot a 75-year-old family member be charged with murder and plans to sue the city, the family's lawyer said Thursday.
Police body camera video showed the officer shot Amelia Baca as she stepped forward after not responding to multiple commands made in English to drop two kitchen knives when the officer responded to a 911 call from a family member about threatening behavior by Baca.
The family says Amelia Baca spoke only Spanish, and the video shows family members telling the officer entering the home April 16 that Baca was mentally ill and experienced a form of dementia, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.
"Let me be blunt. Amelia Baca was executed by the Las Cruces Police Department," family attorney Sam Bregman said during a Thursday news conference.
City Manager Ifo Pili said in a statement released after the news conference that a law enforcement task force's investigation of the incident was ongoing.
The officer, whose identity has not been released, remains on administrative leave, Pili said.
Proposed revision of Mexican wolf management plan draws fire - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
U.S. wildlife managers want to see at least 320 Mexican gray wolves roaming the Southwest within the next several years as they try to recover an endangered species that for decades has been the focus of political strife and litigation.
While a population cap would be eliminated under a proposed management rule, environmentalists say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn't going far enough to ensure the recovery of the endangered species. They're pushing for the release of more captive wolves — specifically bonded pairs with pups.
Federal officials on Friday released their draft decision on the management plan for the wolves and a related environmental review. Among other things, the plan outlines when and how wolves can be removed from the wild or released from captivity.
The changes were prompted by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. A federal judge had ordered that a revised plan be in place by July 1.
Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity said rising wolf numbers and a broader geographic distribution across New Mexico and Arizona should signal more security for the population in the short term. Still, he said the loss of genetic diversity will be a problem for the predators in the future.
"The government is pretending to conserve genetic diversity because of its court loss but refuses to release family packs with high survival rates," he said, noting that independent scientists also have pushed for the integration of underrepresented genes from captivity into the wild.
Robinson said failing to address genetic issues is at odds with the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and may violate the letter of the law.
New Mexico ranchers have their own concerns, noting that removing the population cap will result in more wolves on the landscape and ultimately more confrontation with livestock.
"On a daily basis ranching families contend with unpredictable weather, fluctuating markets and increasing regulations. Now, the federal government is moving the recovery plan 'goal posts' once again," said Craig Ogden, president of New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau. "Our state's ranchers are being sacrificed to achieve an ever-changing goal with no real finish line in sight."
It's unclear whether the Fish and Wildlife Service's latest effort will result in another legal challenge by either ranchers or environmentalists.
Officials with the agency did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the groups' concerns.
The rarest subspecies of the gray wolf in North America, the Mexican wolf has seen its population increase over the last six years. A survey done earlier this year showed at least 196 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona.
The management rule would place restrictions on permits issued to ranchers or state wildlife agencies that allow the killing of wolves if they prey on livestock, elk or deer. In its draft decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service stated that by doing so, demographic and genetic threats to Mexican wolves would be significantly reduced in a decade or less.
Federal officials hope to reach their overall population objective as soon as 2028, and they expect to boost the survival rate of captive-bred wolves that are released into the wild in the coming years.
Officials also said that the revised plan for the first time puts into regulation a genetic objective, and meeting that goal along with the population objective would result in a 90% likelihood of the Mexican wolf population persisting over the next century.
US grappling with Native American boarding school history - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press
Deb Haaland is pushing the U.S. government to reckon with its role in Native American boarding schools like no other Cabinet secretary could — backed by personal experience, a struggle with losing her own Native language and a broader community that has felt the devastating impacts.
The agency she oversees — the Interior Department — released a first-of-its-kind report this week that named the 408 schools the federal government supported to strip Native Americans of their cultures and identities. At least 500 children died at some of the schools, but that number is expected to reach into the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is done.
"We are uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to undercover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long," she said Wednesday during a news conference. "As a pueblo woman, it is my responsibility and, frankly, it's my legacy."
The U.S. government hasn't been open to investigating itself to uncover the truth about boarding schools that operated from the late 18th century to the late 1960s. It's possible now because people who know first-hand the persistent trauma caused by the boarding school system are positioned in the U.S. government.
Still, the work to uncover the truth and create a path for healing will rely on having financial resources in Indian Country, which the federal government has chronically underfunded.
Tribes will have to navigate federal laws on repatriation to take Native children who died and are buried at former boarding school sites home, if desired, and might have no recourse to access burial sites on private land. The causes of death included disease, accidental injuries and abuse.
Boarding school survivors also might be hesitant to recount the painful past and trust a government whose policies were to eradicate tribes and, later, assimilate them under the veil of education. Some have welcomed the opportunity to share their stories for the first time.
Haaland, the first and only Native American Cabinet secretary, has the support of President Joe Biden to investigate further. Congress has provided the Interior Department with $7 million for its work on the next phase of the report, which will focus on burial sites, and identifying Native children and their ages. Haaland also said a year-long tour would seek to gather stories of boarding school survivors for an oral history collection.
A bill that's previously been introduced in Congress to create a truth and healing commission on boarding schools got its first hearing Thursday. It's sponsored by two Native American U.S. representatives — Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, who is Ho-Chunk, and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who is Chickasaw.
"Working with the Interior, knowing that there are representatives in the federal government who understand these experiences not just on a historical record but deep within their selves, their own personal stories, really makes a difference," said Deborah Parker, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a member of the Tulalip Tribes.
More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual violence committed against children at the off-reservation schools. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed off on an apology of sorts for "violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States." The language was buried deep in a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill.
The proposed commission would have a broader scope than the Interior's investigation to seek records with subpoena power. It would make recommendations to the federal government within five years of its passage, possible in the U.S. House but more difficult in the U.S. Senate.
Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Native American Boarding Schools. The goal was to civilize Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Religious and private institutions often received federal funding and were willing partners.
Capt. Richard Henry Pratt described the essence of the federal boarding schools in a speech he gave in 1892 where he said, "Kill the Indian and save the man."
Minnesota resident Mitch Walking Elk ran away multiple times from boarding schools he attended in the late 1950s and early '60s because "my spirit knew it wasn't a good place for me," he said.
Boarding schools aren't the only thing that has led him to distrust the federal government, even as it seems willing to uncover the past. In 1864, Walking Elk's ancestors from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were attacked in the Sand Creek Massacre. At least 200 people were killed, and victims' bodies were mutilated.
"I have reservations about what's going on right now because I don't trust them," said Walking Elk. "If Deb Haaland makes too many waves, the far right, the extremists will manufacture something to put the brakes on this."
Boarding school survivor Ramona Klein testified before Congress on Thursday, describing seeing her mother cry as her children got on a big, green bus for boarding school, being scrubbed with a stiff brush once there, and sleeping under a scratchy wool Army blanket. She put on a large rubber hand when she spoke of being touched at the school at night "like no child's body should be touched."
"Being in that boarding school was the loneliest time of my life," said Klein, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. "It has made it difficult for me to trust other people, including the people on this committee, with my emotions, my thoughts, my dreams and my physical being. And how could that not be the result?"
Republican Rep. Jay Obernolte of California said Congress would need to consider the financial investment in the proposed commission and whether those who serve would do so as a public service or be compensated.
"I'm not opposed to investing substantial taxpayer resources in this commission, but I think we need to be explicit about what those resources are," he said Thursday.
'Like an inferno:' US West burning at furious pace so far - By Marcio J. Sanchez And Brian Melley Associated Press
Wildfires are on a furious pace early this year — from a California hilltop where mansions with multimillion-dollar Pacific Ocean views were torched to remote New Mexico mountains charred by a month-old monster blaze.
The two places could not be more different, but the elements in common are the same: wind-driven flames have torn through vegetation that is extraordinarily dry from years-long drought exacerbated by climate change.
As the unstoppable northern New Mexico wildfire chewed through more dense forest Thursday, firefighters in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel doused charred and smoldering remains of 20 large homes that quickly went up in flames and forced a frantic evacuation.
"The sky, everything was orange. It looked like an inferno, so we just jumped in the car," Sassan Darian said, as he recounted fleeing with his daughter and father while embers swirled around them. "My daughter said, 'We're on fire.' There were sparks on her and we were patting ourselves down."
Nationwide, more than 2,000 square miles have burned so far this year — the most at this point since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the West, with the drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change worsening wildfire danger.
"We all know it's really early for our fire season and we're all in awe of what we've already experienced ... to this point," said Dave Bales, commander on the New Mexico fire that is the largest burning in the U.S.
Fire officials said there was not much they could do in recent days to stop the fast-moving flames burning in tinder-dry forests in the Sangre de Christo range.
Fueled by overgrown mountain sides covered with Ponderosa pine and other trees sucked dry of moisture over decades, it's now burned across more than 405 square miles — an area bigger than the city of Dallas, Texas.
Crews fighting flames along the mountain fronts between Santa Fe and Taos mostly held their own on Thursday thanks to welcome help from aerial attacks. But fire operations chief Todd Abel said that in some places where winds were gusting over ridgetops, it was "almost like putting a hair dryer on it."
Even small fires that once would have been easily contained are extreme threats to life and property because of climate change, said Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority.
The perfect example broke out Wednesday afternoon when flames that may have been sparked by electric utility equipment were pushed up a canyon by strong sea breezes and quickly ignited large homes. They burned a relatively small area — about 200 acres (81 hectares) — but left a large path of destruction.
A sprawling estate selling for $9.9 million had looked in real estate listings like a California dream: teeming with luxuries that included a two-level library, a "wellness wing" with sauna and steam room and a pool on a terrace overlooking scenic Laguna Beach.
By nightfall, the mansion once photographed against a pastel sunset had morphed into a nightmare: its arched facade silhouetted against a glowing yellow sky as firefighters trained their hoses on the engulfed structure.
After the big flames died down Thursday, the house was one of many smoking casualties marked off with yellow tape. In another driveway, a burned-out car rested on its rims. The steep surrounding hillsides were blackened and stripped of vegetation.
Many other homes appeared unscathed and palm trees that had survived the onslaught of embers swayed above in calmer winds.
Two firefighters were hospitalized but no other injuries were reported.
The fire's cause was under investigation and damage inspections were still ongoing on Thursday, Orange County Fire Authority Assistant Chief T.J. McGovern said. Southern California Edison reported that unspecified electrical "circuit activity" occurred around the time the fire broke out late Wednesday afternoon.
Electric utility equipment has repeatedly been linked to starting some of the most disastrous California wildfires, especially during windy weather.
The state Public Utilities Commission last year approved a settlement of more than half a billion dollars in fines and penalties for SoCal Edison for its role in five wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
In New Mexico, another red-flag warning was expected to end by Friday night for the first time in a week but extremely low humidity and bone-dry fuels will continue to provide ample opportunity for flames to spread, officials said.
"This fire is going to continue to grow," Bales, the incident commander, warned Thursday night.
Residents in four counties east and northeast of Santa Fe remained under a variety of evacuation orders and alerts, and fire officials expected the blaze to continue on a northeast path east of Taos through less-populated areas about 40 miles south of the Colorado line.
With strong spring winds tossing embers into unburned territory, the fire has grown tens of square miles daily since starting April 6 when a prescribed burn intended to clear out brush and small trees — to prevent future fires — got out of control. That fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later.
The blaze has burned more than 170 homes so far, but authorities have said that number is expected to increase significantly as more assessments are done and residents are allowed to return home to areas deemed safe.
The New Mexico fire has burned through mostly rural areas that include a mix of scattered ranch homes, historic Hispanic villages that date back centuries and high-dollar summer cabins. Some of the ranching and farming families who have called the area home for generations have spoken at length about the sacredness of the landscape, while many others have been too brokenhearted to express what they have lost.
PED calls for input on a plan to improve equal access to public education - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico
The plan comes in response to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit that unveiled a history of failures by the state in providing adequate education for a majority of public school students. The case resulted in the court ordering New Mexico to fix the system.
The work ahead? A substantial overhaul after “decades of neglect and underfunding” that affected young people with disabilities, those learning English, Native Americans, and students from families with low incomes, the action report summarizes.
The Yazzie-Martinez judgment identified at-risk students as 70% of the total K-12 population in the state.
The state’s 55-page followup four years after the ruling also outlines several efforts by the state to adhere to the court order.
One, the state says it is working on a plan with tribal leaders to build out a curriculum model that uses traditional languages and cultural preservation, with a long term plan to create community-based Native American language programs.
The hope is that this model will boost reading and math proficiency rates for Native American students by 50% by the end of the 2025-26 school year, according to the PED. In 2019, proficiency rates for this group of students was 25% in reading and 12% in math.
Money is a key example of support for this need. New Mexico has increased its payments to the Indian Education Fund, aid that goes directly to tribal education departments, from $1.8 million 2019 to $15 million in 2023. The bulk of this funding is going toward growing tribal library systems to offer greater resources, such as broadband internet.
In total, New Mexico has 89 school districts. The Yazzie-Martinez judgment highlights 23 that have the highest rate of at-risk students.
School districts in Gallup, Cuba, Albuquerque and Las Cruces are part of these focus districts, and many struggled with internet access for students before and during pandemic-era remote learning.
Access on the Navajo Nation is expected to increase after the tribal government leveraged $70 million in matching federal funds to construct fiber lines in the Pine HIll and Ramah areas, according to NMPED.
The state said it will also expand the pilot project to reach students in the most remote areas via telecast transmitters out of the local PBS station that sends their homework to their televisions.
Education officials want every student to have access to a digital device by the end of the 2023-2024 school year. They also estimate that every student will have access to reliable high-speed internet by the 2025-2026 school year.
Teacher vacancies have doubled since last year, according to the NMSU Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center. In 2021 the state reported 1,048 vacancies — up from the 571 openings in 2020.
Major gaps in teacher diversity mean there’s also a push to recruit new teachers who better represent the students they serve.
During the 2020-2021 school year, white teachers accounted for 59% of the educators employed by NMPED. Hispanic teachers represented 34%, Native American teachers 3% and African American teachers 2%.
Now compare that to the overall student population that is 23% white, 62% Hispanic, 10% Native American and 5% African American and you have what education leaders call the, “teacher-student diversity gap,” which can lead to worse outcomes for students of color.
“It is well-established that students thrive when their teachers reflect the community in which they work,” the action plan states.
To bring in more educators, the state is investing millions of dollars into homegrown recruitment and offering school employees who are not teachers education incentives to go to school and get a teacher's license. Through the Grow Your Own Teachers Scholarship launched in 2019, state officials say 180 scholarships have been awarded through the program.
PED also plans to spend $35 million on a project to help pay for 490 education fellows who are education assistants that want to transition into becoming full-time teachers where they work.
On top of a pay raise, the state is also offering loan repayment programs and grants for professional development to assist teachers.
Agriculture department offers help to those who lost livestock, pasture, trees or bees in NM wildfires – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
The United States Agriculture Department recently released a list of resources to farmers, growers and ranchers affected by the New Mexico wildfires.
About 3,800 adults who live within the Santa Fe National Forest boundaries are employed on farms, according to the socioeconomic assessment published by the federal Forest Service in 2018.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of northern New Mexicans have fled their homes due to the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire, which has burned more than 259,000 acres as of Thursday morning and destroyed at least 166 structures. It’s the second-biggest fire in New Mexico history.
The total amount of damage to livestock or agriculture has not yet been released, but the federal Agriculture Department is making sure individual producers are aware of the assistance programs available to them.
- Livestock Indemnity Program:
Producers who lost livestock due to the wildfires can apply. To qualify, they’ll have to provide documentation of death losses resulting from the wildfires or other adverse weather event, and submit a notice of loss to their local farm service agency. (A list of those is here).
The producer must file the notice within 30 calendar days of when the livestock loss is apparent.
- Emergency Livestock Assistance Program:
Producers of livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish can receive emergency help after losses due to adverse weather events including those from wildfires on non-federal grazing lands.
To qualify, a producer must file a notice to a farm service agency within 30 days and file for honeybee losses within 15 days. More information can be found here, including a tool to help estimate losses.
- Livestock Forage Disaster Program and Tree Assistance Program:
Ranchers who lost grazing area on federally managed lands due to wildfires can receive benefits through this program. A local farm service agency maintains a list of counties eligible.
Additionally, those who run orchards or nurseries can get federal help covering some costs through the Tree Assistance Program for trees, bushes or vines lost during wildfires.
To receive the TAP money, a program application must be filed within 90 days. More information on that can be found here.
State and partners open more daily meal sites for fire evacuees - By Nash Jones, KUNM News
The tens of thousands of wildfire evacuees will now have more opportunities to get a hot meal twice a day as the state partners with new local and national partners to establish six additional sites across northern New Mexico.
The governor’s office announced today that lunch will be available from 11:30 to 1:00 and dinner from 4:30 to 6:00 every day, “no questions asked.”
The new sites are in Taos and Colfax counties, including Taos, Eagle Nest, Raton and Red River. They build upon existing sites in Mora, San Miguel, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties supported by the Food Depot and World Central Kitchen, which the governor’s office says have already provided thousands of meals for evacuees and first responders.
LOCATIONS OF NEW HOT MEAL SITES:
- Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC) – 1021 Salazar Rd., Taos, NM 87571 (lunch only)
- Juan I. Gonzales Agricultural Center – 202 Chamisa Rd., Taos, NM 87571
- Eagle Nest Senior Center – 74 N. Tomboy Drive, Eagle Nest, NM 87118
- Raton Community Center – 901 S. 3rd Street, Raton, NM 87740
- Red River Convention Center – 101 W. River Street, Red River 87558
The meals are free. The state says it is coordinating with county leaders, along with the disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization, Mercy Chefs, to provide them.
Massive New Mexico wildfire grows, but Taos safe for now - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Burning now for more than a month, the largest wildfire in the U.S. was spreading toward mountain resort towns in northern New Mexico on Wednesday, prompting officials to issue another set of warnings for more people to evacuate.
"Day 36," fire spokesman Bill Morse said at a briefing Wednesday night. "Ever since April 6, this fire has grown day by day by day."
Meanwhile, a wildfire that erupted Wednesday afternoon in coastal Southern California raced through coastal bluffs of multimillion-dollar mansions, burning at least 20 homes, fire officials said. The flames were fanned by gusty ocean winds but they were dying down Wednesday night. No injuries were reported but several streets were ordered evacuated.
The fire, which occurred in Laguna Niguel, was relatively small at about 200 acres (81 hectares) but the wind drove embers into palm trees, attics and dense, dry brush on slopes and steep canyons that hadn't burned for decades, Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, said at an evening news conference.
Fennessy said climate change has made even small fires that once would have been easily contained into extreme threats to life and property throughout the West.
As night fell, fire officials in New Mexico said the fastest-moving flames along the eastern front of the Sangre de Cristo range on the southern end of the Rockies were headed farther northeast — away from the area's biggest population center in Taos, a well-known tourist enclave 40 miles south of the Colorado line.
"Currently no issues in the Taos area," fire operations chief Todd Abel said. "The fire is kind of wanting to move to the north and east a little bit. But we're still going to pay close attention."
Some aircraft were able to fly to drop retardant on the blaze despite winds gusting in some areas in excess of 45 mph. And some evacuation orders were relaxed along the southern flank of the fire near Las Vegas, New Mexico — more than 50 miles (80 km) south of the flames on the northern perimeter.
Additional crews were on order to join the more than 1,800 personnel fighting the fire, and forecasters said conditions should be more favorable by the weekend if crews can hold their ground through another red-flag warning stretch into Thursday evening.
On Wednesday, the most active part of the wind-fueled fire northeast of Mora was tossing hot embers farther into unburned territory giving the fire an even bigger foothold on the tinder-dry landscape.
"Another hot, dry, windy day. No surprises there," fire incident meteorologist Makoto Moore said at Wednesday night's briefing in Las Vegas.
After growing more than 50 square miles the day before, the fire had charred more than 370 square miles by Wednesday morning. Evacuations were ordered for villages south of the resort town of Angel Fire east of Taos, 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 Wednesday afternoon, but it was more unnerving for residents of Taos.
"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.
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 and Wednesday 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."
A federal disaster already has been declared because of the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire that escaped containment on April 6 after it was set 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.