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KUNM News Update

MON: Cooler weather helps firefighters battling New Mexico blaze, + More

Wildfire at Night
Santa Fe National Forest
via Flickr
Fire activity above Holman as seen from Hwy 518 during the night shift on May 8, 2022. Photo by Santa Fe National Forest

Cooler weather helps firefighters battling New Mexico blaze - Associated Press

Firefighters in New Mexico who are battling the nation's largest active wildfire said Monday that cooler weather helped them prevent the blaze from growing as nearly 3,000 firefighters worked to strengthen and increase their firebreaks.

Authorities also took stock of the ecological impact of the blaze in a survey of burn severity and soil damage in areas that may be prone to extreme erosion and lengthy deforestation.

The blaze that started nearly seven weeks ago in the Rocky Mountains foothills remained just 40% contained Monday. Fire crews were helped over the weekend by water-dropping helicopters and aircraft and cooler temperatures, but warmer weather was expected Monday.

The blaze started as two fires and burned into one large conflagration. Flames have consumed more than 484 square miles of timber, grassland and brush and evacuations have been place for weeks.

On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service released a survey of vegetation and soil damage across 118 square miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that burned in recent weeks, including public and private land.

About one-firth of the area experienced high-severity burning that can lead to heavy and even dangerous erosion. Trees in those areas will take many years to recover without planting.

The fire is among five active large fires in the state and among 14 nationally, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The New Mexico fire accounts for nearly 60% of the 536 square miles consumed by wildfires in the U.S. so far this year.

Wildfires have broken out this spring in multiple states in the western U.S., where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires. The number of square miles burned so far this year is far above the 10-year national average.

Fire crews continued to make progress toward cordoning off a wildfire on the outskirts of a U.S. national security research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

That fire in the wooded Jemez Mountains was 85% encircled by clearings and barriers that can stop a wildfire from spreading further, U.S. authorities said.

Bandelier National Monument announced plans to partially reopen its reserve for ancestral Native American settlements and culture to the public Friday after a weekslong closure. Campgrounds, backcountry areas and some trails will remain off-limits.

In southwestern New Mexico, a fire that is burning through portions of the Gila National Forest triggered new evacuations on Sunday in rural areas, as emergency crews labored to protect homes and outbuildings from advancing flames. That fire has burned across 230 square miles of forest and scrubland and continues to grow.

National Weather Service forecasters in Albuquerque warned of a likely return later in the week to dry, hot and windy conditions that can accelerate wildfire.

Elections regulators work to help fire evacuees and personnel vote – By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Four large active wildfires in New Mexico have now burned over 525-thousand acres. With early voting for the primary election underway elections regulators are working to ensure thousands of evacuees and fire personnel are able to cast a ballot.

Northern New Mexico’s Mora County has been hard hit by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, the largest burning in the country. Deputy elections clerk Vivian Trujillo says her office relocated as early voting began amid evacuation orders.

“But once we were able to come back, we brought in the system back from over there to over here, so that’s what we’re running here now,” she said. “So, we started off today.”

Trujillo says residents who've returned can vote in person, but those still displaced can request an absentee ballot be mailed to their current location, including an evacuation center.

The Secretary of State’s Office says firefighters and emergency responders are eligible to submit a waiver of secrecy form and fax or scan their ballot to their county clerk’s office.

Absentee ballots must be requested by next Thursday, June 2. That can be done online at NMVOTE.org.

The ballot can then be mailed back or dropped off at a polling location in the voter’s registered county.

Some New Mexico wildfire evacuees worry about their future – Associated Press

As more than 2,700 firefighters in northern New Mexico continued to battle the nation's largest active wildfire on Sunday, many evacuees were growing concerned about their future after weeks away from home.

The biggest fire in the state's recorded history has been burning for six weeks now, and some of the hundreds forced to evacuate say their financial resources are dwindling.

Amity Maes, a 30-year-old Mora resident who said she is 8 ½ months pregnant and penniless, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she bounced around for weeks before finding shelter at an evacuation center in Glorieta, where she believes she contracted COVID-19.

Officials at Glorieta Adventure Camps said there have been 67 coronavirus cases among evacuees, including some that required hospitalization.

After her isolation period, Maes said she was urged to leave and go to a hotel in Santa Fe where she could be closer to a hospital if she went into labor.

But the hotel didn't have her reservation when she arrived and when she finally got a room, it was only for one night.

"They keep encouraging us to go to Albuquerque" where evacuees are being housed in hotels, Maes told the newspaper. "We don't have gas. We don't have no income. There's no gas vouchers. There's no anything. I'm on a quarter-tank of gas, and I don't know what I'm going to do."

The Glorieta retreat center has housed hundreds of people this month and hosted a dozen organizations providing services and resources to evacuees. But it is scheduled to close its shelter this week to prepare for its annual summer camps.

Staff members are trying to ensure all of the center's guests have a place to go when the doors close, but some families are uncertain where they will land.

Heather Nordquist, who has been engaged in issues affecting northern New Mexico residents, said evacuees' needs are not being met.

She has collected about $3,000 in donations, which she has used for food, gift and gas cards, and supplies for evacuees.

"I am so deeply discouraged that our tax dollars aren't finding their way to these evacuees," Nordquist told the New Mexican. "My heart breaks for the people of Mora."

Meanwhile, the wildfire remained 40% contained around its perimeter Sunday.

A cold front that arrived Friday night has lowered temperatures, raised humidity levels and provided cloud cover that "shades the fuels so that the fire has to work harder and struggles to burn that material," fire behavior analyst Dennis Burns. "It's actually given us some decent conditions to go after this fire."

At 484 square miles, the fire is so big it's been split into three zones managed separately by three of the 17 largest Type I incident teams in the nation.

The merged Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire is among five active large fires in the state and among 16 nationally, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

New Mexico advocates review plan aimed at education deficits - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico's governor has presented a long-awaited plan that would set goals for academic proficiency as the state struggles to resolve a lawsuit by frustrated parents who won a court ruling saying the state is failing to provide an adequate education for the vast majority of its students.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's proposal released earlier this month is meant to satisfy that 2018 court ruling and ongoing litigation to ensure adequate resources to equip students as they pursue a career or college education.

New Mexico is among a long list of states where parents have turned to the court system to address frustrations with the state budget process and the quality of classroom education.

The public and advocacy groups have until June 17 to comment. The plan is expected to drive immediate reforms by the state Public Education Department, as well as discussion and budget priorities in the Legislature next year. However, critics say it lacks specifics, including detailed funding plans and timelines.

Native American education advocates and tribal leaders put forward their own plan in 2019. Called the "Tribal Remedy Framework," it cites sections of the lawsuit, makes specific recommendations and suggests a specific amount of funding to carry them out.

"While I am hopeful and happy (the Public Education Department) has released its report and are beginning to move on their response, I am still yet perplexed as to why they have yet to publicly embrace the Tribal Remedy Framework," said Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo. He called the proposed draft "a we know what's best for Native kids approach," and contrasted it to the collaborative plan submitted by tribes and advocates.

Education advocates had expected the governor's proposal to be shared in December, before the January legislative session, but that didn't happen and the state budget was passed in February.

The governor's plan could also be used to determine whether a state court continues to keep watch over spending and initiatives to improve public education.

The court had found that state investments in education, as well as academic outcomes of students, proved that "the vast majority of New Mexico's at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career."

For groups covered in the lawsuit, which constitute around 70% of children in the state, proficiency in reading and math at multiple grade levels was far worse than other students, with around 4% to 15% being proficient, the court found.

Lujan Grisham's draft plan would set academic performance goals that include a 50% increase in test scores compared to 2019 numbers for children covered by the lawsuit — including Native Americans, English learners, and students with disabilities. But the education department concedes that it can't currently measure increases.

The administration has changed proficiency tests twice since the 2018 court ruling, limiting the state's ability to argue to a court that improvements have occurred.

The state also didn't test students comprehensively for two consecutive years during the pandemic. It's rolling out a new battery of tests this year.

"When New Mexico's assessment data are finalized and compiled later this summer, the (Public Education Department) will reset that baseline and the targets defined in the draft action plan will be attached to that data," Public Education Department spokeswoman Carolyn Graham said in a statement. "It's also important to note that the draft plan is, indeed, a draft, and we expect to receive valuable feedback."

The draft plan offers no funding suggestions. It does highlight recent increases in education spending approved by the governor, including recent significant teacher salary raises and overall education funding increases. Education now accounts for around 45% of the $8.5 billion general fund budget. Unlike most other states, New Mexico funds schools through the state budget rather than relying on property tax revenues.

The administration also touts tweaks to support specific groups named in the lawsuit, including an overhaul of social studies standards that expands focus on Native American history and identity. Those changes have been welcomed by education advocates, even those continuing to mount the lawsuit.

Representatives for the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit welcome the draft plan and the opportunity to respond. But they're not satisfied with the level of detail provided by the state.

"It's clear that it still lacks the critical elements we have been asking for on a statewide level: concrete goals, action steps, estimated funding levels, timelines, responsible parties, and estimated staffing needs," Melissa Candelaria, education director with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said in a statement. "Community input is key but would be much more constructive on a fully fleshed out plan."

The education department had said last year, for example, that the draft would include 90-day benchmarks for shorter-term performance targets. None of that was included in the draft released this month.

"The governor's plans are heavy on platitudes and short on results," said state House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia. He suggested that delays in producing a plan were to benefit Lujan Grisham's reelection campaign.

Education is expected to be a central issue in the gubernatorial race this year.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said the draft is intended to provide a long-term guide and that more specific details will be added after the public comment period.

The education reforms were developed "collaboratively across many agencies and there is shared understanding and accountability on the part of agencies to get this critical work done," Hayden said.

Lujan Grisham's office declined to comment on future legal plans, such as seeking to dismiss the lawsuit again, as she tried unsuccessfully to do in 2020.

Earlier this year, the Legislature and the governor approved $500,000 in legal spending related to the case. That's on top of an estimated $6 million already spent by Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and her Republican predecessor to fight the lawsuit since 2014.

Priceless seeds, sprouts key to US West's post-fire future - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A New Mexico facility where researchers work to restore forests devastated by fires faced an almost cruelly ironic threat: The largest wildfire burning in the U.S. was fast approaching.

Owen Burney and his team knew they had to save what they could. Atop their list was a priceless bank of millions of ponderosa pine, spruce and other conifer seeds meant to help restore fire-ravaged landscapes across the American West.

Next were tens of thousands of tree sprouts, many of which were sown to make them more drought tolerant, that were loaded onto trailers and trucked to a greenhouse about 100 miles away.

New Mexico State University's Forestry Research Center in the mountain community of Mora is one of only a few such nurseries in the country and stands at the forefront of a major undertaking to rebuild more resilient forests as wildfires burn hotter, faster and more often.

Firefighters have managed to keep the flames from reaching the center's greenhouses and there's a chance some of the seedlings left behind could be salvaged. But Burney, superintendent of the center, said the massive fire still churning through New Mexico highlights how far behind land managers are when it comes to preventing such fires through thinning and planned burns.

"The sad truth is we're not going to be able to do that overnight, so we're going to see these catastrophic fires for a decade, two decades, three decades — it depends on how quickly we make this turn," he said, while stuck at home watching live updates of the fire's progression as road blocks remained in place.

This year is the worst start to the wildfire season in the past decade. More than 3,737 square miles have burned across the U.S., almost triple the 10-year average.

With no shortage of burn scars around the West, researchers and private groups such as The Nature Conservancy have been tapping New Mexico State University's center for seedlings to learn how best to restore forests after the flames are extinguished.

The center has provided sprouts for projects in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Texas and California, but experts said its capacity for turning out as many as 300,000 seedlings annually isn't enough now and certainly won't be in the future as climate change and drought persist.

The newly formed New Mexico Reforestation Center, made up of a number of universities and the state's Forestry Division, submitted a nearly $80 million proposal to the federal government just last month to jump start a reforestation pipeline that encompasses everything from seed collection to how seedlings are sown in nurseries and where they're ultimately planted.

Matt Hurteau, a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, and his team have been building models to better predict the sweet spot where seedlings will have the best chance of survival as researchers and land managers try to reestablish pockets of forest around the West.

About 10,000 seedlings rescued from the forestry center in Mora will be used for a project focused on growing ponderosa pine at higher elevations. The trouble, Hurteau said, is that past fire footprints chosen for the research are in the line of fire again this year.

He also noted that modeling done last year on the upper Rio Grande watershed that spans Colorado and New Mexico suggested higher elevation forests would see the biggest impacts from wildfire and climate change through the end of the century.

"Here we have the Calf Canyon (Hermits Peak Fire) and it's ripping through those high elevation forests like it's no problem at all," he said of the fire currently burning. "I think we're consistently seeing actual conditions happening sooner than our models would suggest."

Many areas are going to need some attention, said Anne Bradley, the forest program director for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. The group has worked with Santa Clara Pueblo to collect seeds and plant thousands of tiny trees sown at the research center over the last few years in hopes of boosting the emerging science of reforestation.

But at this pace, she acknowledges the work will take centuries. Part of the goal, she said, is to find ways to do it cost-effectively.

Researchers also are looking at how the forest naturally regenerates after fire. Experts say mimicking nature by focusing on tree islands rather than dense swaths of timber could act as a hedge against the next wave of wildfires.

"The genetics really matter; it matters how you raise them in the nursery; it matters where you put that hole in the ground, how you harden those trees as seedlings," Bradley said. "Everything we do is an attempt to learn more and to see what our options might be."

Similar work is happening in Colorado, with thousands of seedlings from the center in Mora earmarked for reforestation projects there.

Larissa Yocom, an assistant professor at Utah State University's Wildland Resources Department, has plans for thousands of aspen seedlings that were rescued from the center. She and her team have worked in the footprint of a 2020 wildfire in southwest Utah. She's holding out hope that the large New Mexico fire won't dash plans for the latest experiment in an older burn scar just north of the fire line.

If the West wants to keep its forests, policymakers need to think about it in economic terms that would have significant benefits for water supplies, recreation and the rural and tribal communities that hold these mountain landscapes sacred, said Collin Haffey, forest and watershed health coordinator with the New Mexico Forestry Division.

Haffey said he can see, feel and smell the dryness that's overtaking the mountains.

He has been part of big project to replant areas of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico, where several large blazes have burned over the last two decades, taking hundreds of homes with them. The latest fire still is creeping through some of the old burn scars.

"That's part of why the reforestation component is important to me because it does allow us — us being our communities — to find ways to start the healing and the recovery process," he said. "It will take generations after these fires. But planting trees is one small thing we can do to potentially have a large impact further down the road."

3 Texans die in New Mexico highway crash involving towed SUV - Associated Press

Three West Texas residents were killed when the SUV they were riding in while it was being towed on a New Mexico highway rolled and they were ejected, state police announced Monday.

Eight people in all were in two SUVs headed east on Interstate 10 outside the small southern New Mexico city of Deming on Saturday night when both vehicles left the roadway for an unknown reason, state police said.

The three men who died were not wearing seat belts and died at the scene after they were ejected from the Nissan SUV they were riding in. The driver was badly injured and was airlifted to a hospital.

The four people riding in the GMC Yukon that was towing the Nissan were taken to hospitals by ambulance. The names and identities of the injured people were not released and state police said they did not know their conditions.

The dead were identified as 53-year-old Raymundo Cruz Herrera and 41-year-old Jose Luis Guerrero, both of El Paso, and 27-year-old Abraham Calderon Anthony, Texas.

State police said alcohol was not a factor in the accident.

No arrests made yet in fatal shooting of Albuquerque woman

Police still are investigating a shooting at a gas station in March that left an Albuquerque woman dead.

They said a man and three teenagers are suspects in the case, but no arrests have been made yet.

Two of the suspects were going to a city park to buy marijuana when they told police they allegedly were robbed and beaten by two men wearing masks.

The victims told police they met up with three teens at the gas station and stayed there, believing the robbers would return to the scene.

An SUV pulled up and three teens fired about 30 shots at the vehicle, killing a female passenger.

According to police, the occupants of the SUV were innocent bystanders and didn't know the teens.

New maps create challenge for women seeking reelection - By Sara Burnett Associated Press

Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 thanks to a record showing by Democratic female candidates. Two years later, a record number of GOP women won seats, bringing the number of women in the chamber to a historic high.

But for some female incumbents running for reelection this year, holding their seats comes with a new challenge: redrawn congressional districts that will be tougher to win.

It's too early to know how many female representatives were hurt by the once-a-decade process known as redistricting — in which boundaries are redrawn based on census data to ensure similarly sized districts — because multiple states haven't finalized their maps. But in states with new district boundaries, the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University found more than a dozen women so far who are running in significantly tougher territory. That's more than double the number who are in districts that will be significantly easier to win after redistricting, the analysis found as of this month.

The new maps mean some female representatives are seeking reelection against longer-serving incumbent men — or against each other, such as in Georgia's Tuesday primary, where two Democratic female incumbents are facing off. Ultimately, the new maps will be a factor in whether women maintain or grow their numbers in the next Congress to more accurately reflect the makeup of the country, a goal members of both parties have concentrated on. Currently, female representatives make up about 28% of the 435 House members, with Democratic women holding roughly three times the number of seats as GOP women.

Many of those women are already vulnerable because they were recently elected and don't have the advantages of longtime incumbency, such as fundraising and name recognition, said Kelly Dittmar, director of research for the center. They also often won in swing districts, areas more likely to switch from one party to the other.

"2022 is an important year to understand how these recently elected women are going to fare," Dittmar said.

In Illinois, which lost a seat in redistricting because of its shrinking population, the state's two first-term female representatives — one Democrat, one Republican — were among the 18-member delegation's biggest losers in the state's remapping.

Democratic mapmakers drew new boundaries that put Democratic Rep. Marie Newman and Republican Rep. Mary Miller into districts already represented by male incumbents. Both women chose instead to run in neighboring districts, against other men. (House members aren't required to live in the district they represent, though most do.)

Newman is a progressive who in 2020 unseated Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. Last fall, Illinois legislators largely dismantled the Chicago-area district she represented as they created a new predominantly Hispanic district to reflect population gains. A large section of Newman's district was drawn into a neighboring district represented by two-term Democratic Rep. Sean Casten.

Newman's home, and the area immediately around it where she performed her best in 2020, were drawn into the heavily Hispanic district represented by Democratic Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. That, Newman said, "I took personal."

She thinks it was payback. "A lot of corporations, a lot of establishment people, they seem to still be mad at me," she told the audience at a fundraiser this month.

In an interview, Newman said she believes Democratic legislators responsible for the new map felt she was expendable because she was the most recently elected incumbent. She said it is "critically important" to have more women in Congress, especially at a time when abortion rights are under threat. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

"You can't have an unqualified person in there. But if there's a qualified woman, I think you really have to look at that and say, 'We need more of a women's voice in Congress, period,'" said Newman, who recently released a campaign ad in which she discusses having an abortion at age 19. "I am very confident if there were another 50 to 100 women in Congress and in the Senate, we would not be in this situation ... (Roe) would have been codified and unoverturnable."

Of course, not all women support codifying, or putting into federal law, the right to abortion. Among the fiercest opponents in the House is Miller, who said she was inspired by then-President Donald Trump to run for her southern Illinois seat in 2020.

Miller was drawn into the same congressional district as fellow conservative Rep. Mike Bost, for whom Trump campaigned in 2018. Rather than run against him, Miller opted to run in a nearby district against five-term Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who supported a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Trump has endorsed Miller.

Another female Republican, first-term Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, also was the victim of a partisan remap as Democrats who control the Legislature redrew her district in the southern part of the state to be significantly more Democratic.

It is not clear yet whether women were negatively affected by redistricting at a greater rate than male incumbents, many of whom also face more difficult elections, Dittmar said.

In some cases, women face challenges from other incumbents. That's the case in Michigan, where Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens are both running for a new Democrat-leaning district drawn by an independent commission. The matchup leaves another newly drawn, more competitive district without an incumbent.

And in Georgia, at least one female incumbent will lose her bid for another term after Tuesday's primary. Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux both flipped longtime GOP-held districts in the Atlanta area in recent election cycles. But after Republicans who control the state Legislature redrew McBath's district to favor Republicans, the two-term incumbent chose to take on the first-term Bourdeaux in a more Democrat-friendly district.

Some women are benefiting from the shakeup. In Oklahoma, GOP Rep. Stephanie Bice's district in the Oklahoma City area — previously held by Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn — was redrawn to be significantly more Republican.

For the candidates facing a tougher reelection, it is often familiar ground.

"I just have to prove myself again," Newman said.