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MON: NM weighs benefits of language programs, Western wildfires force evacuations, + More

Student in classroom
Cedar Attanasio/AP
/
AP
Fourth grade Spanish/English dual language class student Jaqueline Powell, 10, writes her assignment in Spanish at the New Mexico International School in Albuquerque, N.M., on Monday, May 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Western wildfires force evacuations in Arizona, California - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The Western U.S. on Monday marked another day of hot, dry and windy weather as crews from California to New Mexico battled wildfires that had forced hundreds of people to leave their homes.

Several hundred homes on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona, were evacuated and the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort was closed as a precaution because of a wildfire — the second to hit the area this year.

Crews were expecting gusts of up to 50 mph as they battled the blaze that has burned through parts of the footprint left by another springtime fire that destroyed more than two dozen homes. No homes have been lost in the fire that started Sunday and has burned about 8 square miles.

"It's literally like déjà vu," said Coconino County sheriff's spokesman Jon Paxton. "We are in the same exact spot doing the same exact thing as we were a month and a half ago. People are tired."

Wildfires broke out early 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 more than double the 10-year national average, and states like New Mexico already have set records with devastating blazes that have destroyed hundreds of homes while causing environmental damage that is expected to affect future water supplies.

Nationally, more than 6,200 wildland firefighters were battling nearly three dozen uncontained fires that had charred over 1 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Even in Alaska, forecasters have warned that many fires in the southwest corner of that state have experienced exceptional growth over the last week, which is unusual for that area. Southwest Alaska normally experiences shorter periods of high fire danger since intermittent rain can provide relief, but since mid-May the region has been hot and windy, helping to dry out vegetation.

Favorable weather Monday helped slow progression of a tundra wildfire just over 3 miles away from an Alaska Native village. Moderate temperatures and a shift in the wind that had been driving the fire toward St. Mary's will allow firefighters to directly attack the flames and increase safety protections for the Yup'ik community.

The lightning-sparked fire is estimated at about 193 square miles. It's burning in dry grass and shrubs in the mostly treeless tundra in southwest Alaska.

In California, evacuation orders were in place Monday for remote homes near a wildfire that flared up over the weekend northeast of Los Angeles near the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The blaze saw renewed growth Sunday afternoon and by nighttime had scorched about 1.5 square miles of pine trees and dry brush, officials said.

Aside from mandatory evacuations for some residents, the remainder of the mountain town of Wrightwood, with about 4,500 residents, was under an evacuation warning. Several roads also were closed.

To the west in Los Angeles County, firefighters quickly corralled a wildfire that erupted Sunday in foothills above Duarte. No homes were threatened.

Fire conditions were elevated because of warm and dry weekend weather across Southern California. Monday was expected to be cooler, but another heatwave was expected at midweek, the National Weather Service said.

In Northern California, a 50-mile stretch of State Route 70 was closed indefinitely on Monday after mud, boulders and dead trees inundated lanes during flash floods along a wildfire burn scar.

Several drivers were rescued Sunday evening from debris flowing on the highway when hillsides burned bare by last year's enormous Dixie Fire came loose. No injuries were reported.

The causes of the latest California fires were under investigation.

U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers cited a 57-year-old man for lighting toilet paper on fire and placing it under a rock Saturday while he was camping near the origin of the Arizona wildfire. The fire was reported a day later. Court documents show the man told authorities he tried to put the fire out with his sleeping bag, but his attorney said in federal court Monday that doesn't mean his client was responsible for sparking the blaze.

Flagstaff resident Janetta Kathleen rode her horse, Squish, up a hill to get a better look at the wildfire Sunday evening and watched it creep toward homes in the shadow of the mountain. Her home isn't directly in the fire's path, but her family, two bulldogs and horses are ready to go at a moment's notice.

"I need to know what's going on because I have decisions to make for my family," she said. "If the winds shift, we'll be in trouble."

Hikers, campers and others who were out enjoying the forest also had to leave Sunday. A shelter was set up at a middle school.

Strong winds sent embers across U.S. Route 89, the main route to the turnoff for the Grand Canyon's east rim entrance, through the Navajo Nation and up into Utah. Many people commute between the reservation and Flagstaff for work. Parts of the highway remained closed Monday.

"We're not working directly on suppressing the fire to get the whole thing out right now," said Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith. "That's not our focus and it's not possible right now. Right now, it's going to be focused on protecting life and property."

Smoke from the fire near Flagstaff caused hazy skies in Colorado on Monday, obscuring views of the Rocky Mountains from Denver and other cities along the state's Front Range.

Meanwhile, firefighters worked to contain a small wildfire burning in juniper and pinion pine that briefly caused evacuation orders Sunday in the San Luis Valley's Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for high fire danger in central and southern parts of Colorado as well as parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles; Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; Jim Anderson in Denver; and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

Most Hispanic US state weighs benefits of language programs - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Jacqueline Powell and her fourth grade classmates toiled over pencil and paper to write a letter in Spanish about what they did in class this year.

Powell explained the assignment in perfect Spanish before struggling to translate the words to end her sentence. The 10-year-old charter school student raised her forearms to her temples in a show of mental effort, making her large round glasses seesaw up and down.

That struggle, fought every week at the New Mexico International School in Albuquerque, has put her speaking ability far ahead of some of her high school peers. It has allowed her to speak in Spanish with her grandmother, who is from Chihuahua, Mexico, and she has fostered a secret language between her and her mom, whose husband and step children can't speak Spanish.

While dual language programs are offered in thousands of schools across the U.S., New Mexico is the only state where the right to learn in Spanish is laid out in the constitution.

Dual language programs like the one at the New Mexico International School are championed by Hispanic parents who want their children to cultivate cultural roots. They are also seen by education experts as the best way for English learners to excel in K-12 schools.

The question for lawmakers in the nation's most heavily Hispanic state is why New Mexico's dual language programs aren't being used by the students who most need them.

Legislative analysts are expected in the coming weeks to release a report that will highlight challenges facing dual language and other multicultural programs. It will include a look at decades-old trends such as a lack of oversight by education officials, declining participation, and a reduction in the number of multicultural programs, said Legislative Finance Committee spokesman Jon Courtney.

The report also will acknowledge the lack of information about how well language programs are doing after two years without comprehensive academic testing due to the pandemic.

The number of dual language immersion programs has increased from 126 before the pandemic to 132 last year.

State officials are supposed to assess the programs every three years. But the New Mexico Public Education Department has done only one in-person visit and evaluated only one school over the past three years, said department spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

The department has started a series of forums for parents around the Hispanic Education Act, a state law that informs multicultural programs.

While there isn't a consensus among educators as to how to best teach young children languages, a New Mexico court found in 2018 that well-run dual language programs are the "gold standard" for English learners.

The alternative, more popular in Arizona, is to separate children out for remedial instruction.

In New Mexico, English learners make up a larger share of dual language program participants. They comprise 63% of participants in the current school year, up from 53% last year.

At the New Mexico International School in Albuquerque, around half of students are Hispanic, like Jacqueline, and reflective of the city's population.

"Many of their parents are trying to reclaim the language," school principal Todd Knouse said.

English-speaking parents say they have an easier time learning about the benefits of dual language programs and jumping through the hoops to get into charter schools. The schools are free but don't provide bussing.

"It's almost like a privilege type of experience to get your kid into these programs because it does take a lot of research. Tracking down the programs, the distance of how long you're willing to drive, the (admission) lottery," said Mary Baldwin, 34, whose daughter attends the Albuquerque school.

"And then there's so much shame that gets placed on the Spanish language or the culture itself," she said. "Some families might not be aware that being bilingual is a huge strength not just culturally but also professionally."

Baldwin immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras when she was 10. Her daughter is the same age now and is fluent enough to cook banana-leaf-wrapped tamales with her Spanish-speaking grandmother as a result of the dual language program.

Fans of New Mexico's programs say they elevate Spanish-speakers' skills and give them confidence in an environment where everyone is equal as they learn a new language. The programs also increase fluency and literacy in their home language.

"It's generally beneficial to have two languages," said Stephen Mandrgoc, a University of New Mexico historian who has studied bilingual programs in the southwest and oversees Spanish colonial heritage programs.

When it comes to languages spoken by New Mexico's Native American tribes and pueblos, there are some state laws that protect student rights. Still, only two dual language programs are offered in Native American languages — both in Diné, the language of the Navajo people.

Some tribes like Jemez Pueblo face a more pressing existential threat to their language because of a small population and cultural taboos that limit the creation of language materials. Other tribes like Santa Clara Pueblo say underinvestment is a problem.

New Mexico officials have appropriated millions of dollars to support curriculum projects, but much of the funds go unspent. Advocates say one problem is the time in which grants must be spent, from less than a year to sometimes as short as a month before it reverts back to the state.

Oil industry prepares for restrictions to conserve rare bird - By Adrian Hedden Carlsbad Current-Argus

Lesser prairie chickens once numbered in the thousands throughout the American West, thriving on the prairielands of eastern New Mexico and the American West.

But in recent years, the chicken's numbers declined amid growing development in the oil and gas and agriculture sectors throughout the region and conservationists worried the unique bird could be in danger of extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed federal protections for the species last year under the Endangered Species Act, seeking an endangered listing for the bird in southeast New Mexico and West Texas and a threatened listing in the rest of the animal's range which extends through Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

A species is considered "endangered" by the agency when its extinction is believed imminent, while "threatened" means the animal could soon warrant endangered status.

Both statuses results in the federal government developing a recovery plan and setting aside acreage deemed "critical habitat" of the species at risk.

A final decision on the lesser prairie chicken's listing was expected this month, records show, and it could restrict access to lands needed for the chicken's recovery and impact some of New Mexico's biggest industries, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

That's why conservation bank Lesser prairie chickens Conservation proposed a habitat conservation plan for the oil and gas industry. It was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service on June 3.

It would allow oil and gas operations to occur within areas where the chicken could dwell.

Energy companies buy protections from the conservation bank for the areas known as "strongholds," while conducting certain conservation practices on the lands amid their operations, and in exchange are exempted from future restrictions should the species ultimately be listed.

They receive a permit for "incidental take" which refers to a number of birds that are allowed to be killed during development.

The intention, said LPC Conservation Chief Executive Officer Wayne Walker, is to save the animal in danger of dying out while also allowing essential economic drivers to continue.

That balance, he said, is essential as it enlists the help of companies that hold large swaths of land.

"We believe using a market-based business model is the best way to secure the desired outcomes for all involved to finally deliver quantifiable conservation benefits to the (the bird)," he said. "The species is a key indicator of the health of the southern Great Plains. LPC Conservation offers a legally defensible permit that should be of interest to this industry."

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement that enrollees would be able to avoid future regulatory shifts while helping to conserve the bird.

The agency also published an environmental assessment in May that showed take permits would impact up to 500,000 acres of chicken habitat in all five states — 200,000 acres in the southern population segment in New Mexico and Texas and 300,000 acres in the northern population.

When implemented, the agency estimates the plan would lead to the restoration and continued management of up to a million acres of chicken habitat.

This would have "no significant impact" on the environment or human activity, per a report from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and no further analysis was needed.

"For more than two decades, we have prioritized efforts with our partners to employ all available tools to facilitate the conservation of the lesser prairie-chicken," the statement read. "Working with others is essential to protecting ecosystems that benefit wildlife and economies."

Locally, Carlsbad-based conservation non-profit CEHMM (The Center for Excellence) reported it undertook several projects to protect the lesser prairie chicken in early 2022.

CEHMM offers conservation agreements also approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service for private and public lands.

Similar to the habitat conservation plan, enrollees agree to conservation practices to avoid future regulatory burdens if a listing is approved.

CEHMM reported it did not yet find any leks, or prairie chicken breeding grounds, during a week-long survey conducted March 23, per its report for the first quarter of 2022 published last month.

The oil and gas industry so far enrolled 508,737 acres within the bird's occupied range in New Mexico in CEHMM's program, per the report, while 891,293 acres were enrolled by ranchers and another 348,551 acres were enrolled by the New Mexico State Land Office.

That means about 1.2 million acres were enrolled in total, just more than half of the 2.1 million acres CHEMM identified as the bird's occupied range.

Johnathan Hayes, executive director of the southwest region for the Audubon Society, said that effort to conserve the bird while protecting local industry was crucial to ensure local communities are impacted as little as possible by government decision-making.

He said the Society supports the chicken's listing, but hopes plans like LPC Conservation's and others will provide economic support amid conservation efforts.

"The listing decision is the right way to go, but we're recognizing that that does have a cost," Hayes said. "We want to make sure the negative impact that happens to industry, that we're allowing industry to have some ability to predict what those regulations will be and what that impact will be."

Hayes said work to save the bird could also restore the land and ecosystem, supporting the broader environment from human impacts to climate change.

"Birds are the canary in the coal mine. This is a good example of us seeing the loss of suitable habitat that is driving the decline of these birds is absolutely an impact we've had on the landscape, the climate," he said.

"This isn't just about the bird."

Former Navajo Nation vice chairman Edward T Begay dies at 87 - Associated Press

Edward T. Begay, who was vice chairman of the Navajo Nation in the 1980s, died Sunday, according to his family. He was 87.

No cause of death was given by Begay's family, but they said he died in Albuquerque surrounded by family members.

Begay was head of the legislative branch during some key moments in tribal government.

He also presided over the Navajo Nation Council when the tribe incorporated traditional, natural and customary laws into its government system.

Begay, who grew up in New Mexico, Begay represented the Churchrock and Breadsprings Chapters on the tribal council from 1971-83.

As vice chairman from 1983-87, Begay worked closely with the council to renegotiate mineral, coal, oil, and gas leases with major energy companies.

Begay was elected speaker of the 88-member council in 1999 and served two terms and worked to get the first gambling compact with New Mexico and Arizona in place.

A complete list of Begay's survivors was immediately available. His family said funeral plans were pending.

Biden ramps up federal help for New Mexico wildfire fight - By Chris Megerian And Morgan Lee Associated Press

President Joe Biden said Saturday he was escalating federal assistance for New Mexico as it faces its largest wildfire in recorded state history.

The fire began with prescribed burns that were set by the U.S. Forest Service, a standard practice that's intended to clear out combustible underbrush. However, the burns spread out of control, destroying hundreds of homes across 500 square miles since early April, according to federal officials.

"We need to be sure this doesn't happen again," Biden said during a visit to an emergency operations center in Santa Fe, where he met with local, state and federal officials. He was returning to Washington from Los Angeles, where he had attended the Summit of the Americas.

The president said the federal government would cover the full cost of the emergency response and debris removal, a responsibility that was previously shared with the state government.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told Biden that "your administration has leaned in from the very beginning" and that "we need the federal government to keep accepting responsibility."

Biden said he also supports having Washington foot the bill for damages caused by the fire, but such a step would require congressional action.

Evidence of New Mexico's struggle with wildfire was visible from Air Force One as the president's plane approached. There were plumes of smoke in the distance, and rows of burned trees looked like blackened scars slashing through green forests.

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."

But the source of the current wildfire in New Mexico has also sparked outrage here.

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.

The Forest Service sets roughly 4,500 prescribed burns each year nationwide, and Biden said the practice has been put on hold during an investigation.

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 at least 900 disaster relief claims worth more than $3 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."

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the agency had more than 400 personnel in the state to work with residents and help them seek federal assistance.

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."

Phoenix, Vegas, Denver post records amid Southwest heat wave - Associated Press

Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver and California's Death Valley all posted record temperatures on Saturday, as dangerous heat swept across the American Southwest.

The National Weather Service in Phoenix reported a temperature of 114 degrees Fahrenheit , tying the record high for the date set back in 1918.

Las Vegas tied a record for the day set in 1956, with temperatures soaring to 109 F (43 C). The National Weather Service said there was a chance the high temperatures in both cities could rise even more.

In Colorado, Denver hit 100 F, tying a record set in 2013 for both the high temperature and the earliest calendar day to reach 100 F.

Temperatures in several inland areas of California reached triple digits by the afternoon, with a record high for June 11 of 122 F reached in Death Valley.

Excessive heat warnings and heat advisories were issued for parts of Northern California through the Central Valley and down to the southeastern deserts.

The National Weather Service also predicted 114 F in Palm Springs and temperatures around 100F across the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento area.

Heat was expected to extend to inland portions of the San Francisco Bay Area but most of the California coastal zones remained free of heat advisories.

The scorching heat in Northern California was expected to subside Saturday evening. Heat advisories in parts of Southern California were extended through Sunday.

Meteorologists warned of very high "heat risk" in south-central Arizona through the weekend. The high temperatures were likely to approach record-breaking territory — anywhere between 110 F and 115 F . They have urged the public to limit outdoor activities.

Parts of New Mexico and Texas also were also to see triple-digits.

Heat is part of the normal routine of summertime in the desert, but weather forecasters say that doesn't mean people should feel at ease. Excessive heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than other weather-related disasters, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined.

Scientists say more frequent and intense heat waves are likely in the future because of climate change and a deepening drought.

State to help with $150,000 funding to boost Ruidoso tourism - Associated Press

More than two months after being impacted by a huge wildfire, the Village of Ruidoso is looking to make a tourism comeback.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Friday that Ruidoso and the state Tourism Department are jointly earmarking $150,000 to help lure visitors to the southern New Mexico community.

Ruidoso is still recovering from the so-called McBride Fire that destroyed more than 200 homes and killed two people in April. The blaze, which burned 9.4 square miles (24 square kilometers), became fully contained a month ago.

The funding will focus on tourists in west Texas, a source of the most travelers to Ruidoso.

Ruidoso Director of Tourism Elizabeth Ritter says there is still a lot of scenery to enjoy despite trails still being restricted due to wildfire risk.

State tourism officials met with the residents of the mountain town last month to address concerns and ideas for recovery.