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SAT: Biden set to meet with New Mexico residents affected by wildfires, Marines from airplane crash in California identified, + More

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in Mora County
via the Office of the Governor
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham surveyed homes in Sapello and Rociada that have been damaged or destroyed by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire on June 7

Wildfire, residents' fury facing Biden on New Mexico visitBy Morgan Lee, Chris Megerian, Associated Press

President Joe Biden is focusing on his administration's efforts to tackle wildfires during Saturday's visit to New Mexico, where residents are enraged that federal officials allowed planned burns to spread out of control, leading to the largest blaze in recorded state history.

The fire has been contained on several fronts, but is still burning and conditions are dangerously hot and dry. It has destroyed more than 430 homes across 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) since early April, according to federal officials.

Evacuations have displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage. Fear of flames is giving way to concern about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fire penetrated soil and roots.

The blaze is the latest reminder of Biden's concern about wildfires, which are expected to worsen as climate change continues, and how they will strain resources needed to fight them.

"These fires are blinking 'code red' for our nation," Biden said last year after stops in Idaho and California. "They're gaining frequency and ferocity."

In New Mexico, investigators have tracked the two source fires to burns that were set by federal forest managers as preventative measures. A group of Mora County residents sued the U.S. Forest Service this past week in an effort to obtain more information about the government's role.

Ralph Arellanes of Las Vegas, New Mexico, said many ranchers of modest means appear unlikely to receive compensation for uninsured cabins, barns and sheds that were razed by the fire.

"They've got their day job and their ranch and farm life. It's not like they have a big old house or hacienda — it could be a very basic home, may or may not have running water," said Arellanes, a former wildland firefighter and chairman for a confederation of Hispanic community advocacy groups. "They use it to stay there to feed and water the cattle on the weekend. Or maybe they have a camper. But a lot of that got burned."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 890 disaster relief claims worth $2.7 million for individuals and households.

On Thursday, the Biden administration extended eligible financial relief to the repair of water facilities, irrigation ditches, bridges and roads. Proposed legislation from U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., would offer full compensation for nearly all lost property and income linked to the wildfire.

Jennifer Carbajal says she evacuated twice from the impending wildfire at a shared family home at Pandaries in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The house survived while about 50 neighboring homes burned along with the tanks that feed the municipal water system, leaving no local supply of potable water without truck deliveries.

"There is no long-term plan right now for water infrastructure in northern New Mexico," Carbajal said.

She said matters are worse in many hardscrabble communities across fire-scarred Mora County, where the median household income is roughly $28,000 — less than half the national average.

"They barter a lot and really have never had to rely on external resources," she said. "The whole idea of applying for a loan (from FEMA) is an immediate turnoff for the majority of that population."

George Fernandez of Las Vegas, New Mexico, says his family is unlikely to be compensated for an uninsured, fire-gutted house in the remote Mineral Hills area, nor a companion cabin that was built by his grandparents nearly a century ago.

Fernandez said his brother had moved away from the house to a nursing home before the fire swept through — making direct federal compensation unlikely under current rules because the house was no longer a primary residence.

"I think they should make accommodations for everybody who lost whatever they lost at face value," Fernandez said. "It would take a lot of money to accomplish that, but it was something they started and I think they should."

Five killed in California Marine aircraft crash identifiedAssociated Press

The U.S. Marine Corps on Friday identified five people who died when their Osprey tiltrotor aircraft crashed during training in the California desert.

Killed were two pilots: Capt. Nicholas P. Losapio, 31, of Rockingham, New Hampshire and Capt. John J. Sax, 33, of Placer, California.

Also killed were three tiltrotor crew chiefs: Cpl. Nathan E. Carlson, 21, of Winnebago, Illinois; Cpl. Seth D. Rasmuson, 21, of Johnson, Wyoming and Lance Cpl. Evan A. Strickland, 19, of Valencia, New Mexico.

The longest-serving Marine was Losapio, with 8 years and 9 months, while Strickland had been in the service for 1 year and 7 months

The MV-22 Osprey went down Wednesday afternoon during training in a remote area in Imperial County near the community of Glamis, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) east of San Diego and about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Yuma, Arizona.

The Marines were based at Camp Pendleton and assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 364 of Marine Aircraft Group 39, part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.

"It is with heavy hearts that we mourn the loss of five Marines from the Purple Fox family" the squadron's commanding officer, Lt. Col. John C. Miller, said in a statement. "Our primary mission now is taking care of the family members of our fallen Marines and we respectfully request privacy for their families as they navigate this difficult time."

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

The Marines were participating in routine live-fire training over their gunnery range in the Imperial Valley desert, said Marine Maj. Mason Englehart, spokesperson for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The Osprey, a hybrid airplane and helicopter, flew in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but has been criticized by some as unsafe. It is designed to take off like a helicopter, rotate its propellers to a horizontal position and cruise like an airplane.

Versions of the aircraft are flown by the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

Prior to Wednesday's crash, Osprey crashes had caused 46 deaths, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Most recently, four Marines were killed when a Marine Corps Osprey crashed on March 18 near a Norwegian town in the Arctic Circle while participating in a NATO exercise.

New Mexico residents sue for information on massive wildfireAssociated Press

Dozens of residents in a small New Mexico community impacted by massive wildfires that merged in April are suing the U.S. Forest Service over what they called a failure to provide information about the government's role in starting the blazes.

The Forest Service has acknowledged that two prescribed burns it set to clear out brush and small trees that can serve as wildfire fuel sparked two blazes that came together as the largest in New Mexico's recorded history and the biggest burning in the U.S. right now.

The wildfire has charred 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which sits at the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Several hundred homes have been destroyed.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on behalf of 50 Mora County residents, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

It asks the court to declare that the Forest Service improperly withheld planning documents for the burns, agreements or contracts with anyone who helped carry out the burns and information on the rules and regulations that govern the prescribed burns.

Without the information, the lawsuit alleges, the residents "cannot determine the Forest Service's responsibility — other than media accounts — for starting the fire."

The Forest Service told the Santa Fe New Mexican that it does not comment on pending litigation. The agency has said unexpected, erratic winds during one prescribed burn carried embers outside the targeted area. The other wildfire emerged from a burn set on a pile of dead vegetation in January that smoldered for weeks, even under snow.

The agency has put a hold on prescribed burns nationwide pending its own investigation.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit New Mexico on Saturday for a briefing about the wildfires and recovery efforts.

Another wildfire in southwestern New Mexico has burned 466 square miles (1,206 square kilometers), prompting New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare an emergency for Sierra County on Friday.

The declaration came as the fire grew to become the second largest wildfire in state history. The governor's office said it's now burning beyond the boundaries of the Gila National Forest, affecting communities and requiring evacuations.

Also Friday, crews of about 200 firefighters were scrambling to try and contain a small fire in northern New Mexico near El Rito that sent up a tall, dense plume of smoke. No structures were threatened, with the cause under investigation.

In northern New Mexico, Mora County residents said they requested documents from the Forest Service on May 4 about the fire in northern New Mexico, but that the agency failed to respond within 20 working days as required under the law. The lawsuit also seeks attorneys' fees.

Herman Lujan, 80, his brother and nephew are among the Mora County residents who are suing. Lujan's home was spared, but he said he has 30 hungry cattle that he might have to sell because they can't graze in a burned pasture his family has used for generations.

"Everything burned," he said. "Timber, everything. I even had an old dozer up there to make ponds for the cows, and everything burned."

Don Perkins, 6-time Pro Bowl RB with Cowboys, dies at 84Associated Press

Don Perkins, a six-time Pro Bowl running back with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s, has died. He was 84.

The NFL team and the University of New Mexico, where Perkins was a standout player before his professional career, said Perkins died Thursday. No cause of death was revealed.

Perkins rushed for 6,217 yards in 107 games with the Cowboys from 1961-68, and is fourth on the team's career list behind two Pro Football Hall of Famers — NFL career rusher leader Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett — and their current running back, Ezekiel Elliott. Perkins' 42 rushing touchdowns rank fifth in team history.

While he was initially drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the ninth round of the 1960 draft, Perkins had already signed a personal services with the expansion Cowboys. Dallas got his rights after sending the Colts a ninth-round draft pick.

Perkins missed the Cowboys' inaugural season in 1960 because of a broken foot. He rushed for 815 yards in 1961, and finished third in the voting for NFL rookie of the year behind Mike Ditka and Fran Tarkenton. He had a career-best 945 yards rushing in 1962.

Born in Waterloo, Iowa, Perkins played for New Mexico from 1957-59. He was a team captain his final two seasons when the Lobos coach was Marv Levy. Perkins returned to the Albuquerque area after his pro football career was over.

"Don is one of the greatest Lobos, and certainly one of the greatest football players to play for UNM. He was a tremendous student-athlete, and he had a terrific career in the NFL, but he was more than that," New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nuñez said. "He came back to New Mexico and worked for the state and was a tremendous ambassador for so many."

Rare wetland plant found in Arizona now listed as endangeredBy Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

A rare plant that depends on wetlands for survival is now on the federal endangered species list, a designation that environmentalists say will boost efforts to protect the last free-flowing river in the desert Southwest.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published the decision Friday in the federal register to list the Arizona eryngo as endangered and set aside nearly 13 acres (5 hectares) in southern Arizona as critical habitat.

The decision comes years after environmentalists petitioned and then sued to gain protection for the plant with cream-colored spherical flower heads. Only two populations are known in Arizona — near Tucson and in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

The eryngo grows in ciénegas, a type of wetland fed by natural springs that come from the deep aquifer and nourish the San Pedro River. The plant's habitat and the flow of the San Pedro River have been threatened by over-pumping of groundwater in the region, climate change and drought.

"This gives us a new ability to protect it," Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity said of the river. "Protecting plants protects the aquifer itself."

The plant also is found in the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. It historically grew in southwestern New Mexico at Las Playas Springs but hasn't been documented there since 1851, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The critical habitat in Arizona lies in Pima and Cochise Counties and doesn't include another location where efforts have failed to reintroduce the eryngo. The agency said development still can occur in the areas, but anything that relies on federal funding or federal permits has to be analyzed to ensure it doesn't impact the eryngo's habitat.

"Partnerships will be central to addressing the threats to the Arizona eryngo and putting it on the path to recovery," Amy Lueders, the Southwest regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.

The agency didn't immediately respond to an email Friday afternoon from The Associated Press.

The Arizona eryngo is part of the carrot family and can grow more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. It relies on pollinators, such as butterflies and hummingbirds, to reproduce. Conservation efforts are underway to establish more populations of the eryngo.