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TUES: Activity on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire grows, Public defenders pause visits to state’s largest jail, + More

Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Smoke Plume
Megan Kamerick
/
KUNM
The smoke plume over the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire grew Tuesday amid winds and hot, dry weather increasing the fire's activity.

Activity on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire grows amid heavy winds - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Fire officials announced Tuesday that heavy wind and hot, arid conditions have increased activity on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the largest in state history.

In an update posted to Facebook, officials said the fire is expanding northwest, as well as northeast from about the middle of the eastern perimeter of the fire, around Iron Gate Campground.

The statement said they expect any unburned areas within the perimeter to be consumed throughout the rest of the day.

Air crews have been grounded with a Red Flag Warning due to high, erratic winds in effect for the area until 8 p.m.

While officials warned that residents may notice a larger plume of smoke over the fire area, they assured nearby communities that they are not at higher risk from this activity and roads remain open.

As of this morning, the fire had burned over 508 square miles and is 70% contained.

Citing dangerous conditions, public defenders pause visits with clients in New Mexico’s largest jail – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

The situation inside the Bernalillo County jail has become so unsafe that New Mexico’s public defenders have temporarily stopped going into the facility, the state’s chief public defender said Monday.

The warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County outside Albuquerque, the largest jail in the state, on June 4 declared a state of emergency that requires guards to report for work and drops limits on overtime pay, the Albuquerque Journal reported Monday.

Jail officials told the newspaper they declared the emergency because there are too few guards to supervise the roughly 1,300 people locked inside.

Over the last several months, the Law Offices of the Public Defender and other defense attorneys have had limited in-person visitations to the jail, Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur said in an interview on Monday. They have been going into the pods to meet with their clients about three days per week, he said.

“As of today, we are suspending that visitation, because of concerns for safety of our people,” he said. “I hope it’s a short-term thing.”

Baur said he has a responsibility for the safety of his employees who walk into a jail.

“If we can’t be satisfied that our people are going to be safe, we can’t do it,” he said. “That is a painful decision, because there’s nothing more that a public defender wants to do than see their clients that are in jail. And so this is a hard step — and I hope it’s not for very long — but we have to figure this out.”

For however long client visits are suspended, he said, those people will not have as good legal representation as they need.

“It will for whatever that period of time is, and it’s a terrible thing,” Baur said.

On top of fears of coronavirus spreading in the jail, people inside are struggling through poor medical and psychiatric care, constitutional violations, lockdowns and inhumane conditions, according to former employees, attorneys, court-appointed experts and court documents reviewed by Source New Mexico in January.

30% of New Mexicans seeking FEMA help got denial letters, but they can still get aid – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far deemed 740 applicants ineligible for federal aid for damages caused by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, though an official stressed Monday that the door is still wide open for those people to get FEMA help.

Spokesperson Angela Byrd provided new numbers to Source New Mexico about applications from those affected by the state’s biggest wildfire, which as of Monday had destroyed more than 320,000 acres and caused thousands to flee their homes.

The denial letters from FEMA sparked criticism from nearby residents and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who say the denials create a perception of blanket rejection of applicants. The letters are automated but say someone has been denied in bold letters across the top.

“In the end, it’d be a lot easier if they didn’t write ‘denial’ on there and instead they said, ‘This benefit may not be applicable, but these all are,” the governor told Source New Mexico on the side of the road in Mora County last week. Instead, the letter should read “‘We’ve put you in this system. We’re gonna call and send out a benefits specialist,’” the governor said.

President Joe Biden, in his visit to New Mexico on Saturday, said FEMA representatives would be sure to make a follow-up phone call to every person who was initially deemed ineligible for aid.

“We also have a team on the ground to help you register. FEMA is calling every person who is denied assistance to ensure they get the help they need in the language they speak,” Biden said at a news conference. “…We’ve learned in our administration it’s not just enough to provide the help, but to let people know how they can access the help.”

Byrd did not have information available about how many appeals have been filed. Applicants who receive initial denials have 60 days to file an appeal.

Those figures show that about 30% of applicants have received initial denial letters from the agency. It’s common for a denial to be issued if an applicant hasn’t provided enough documents, Byrd said.

“I hate to use the word deny, because they have the opportunity to appeal,” she said. “But they have to look at the base of why they were found ineligible and support whatever documentation is needed.”

Byrd and other FEMA officials urged recipients of those letters to read the letters closely and call the agency with concerns. And they stressed that an initial denial notice does not close as many doors as it might seem.

Individuals and families who receive the denials are referred to the Small Business Administration for a potential loan. Those who don’t qualify for a loan will be referred back to FEMA, Byrd said.

“Then they could come back and they can get help from FEMA. So it’s not a final, final decision,” she said.

So far, FEMA has provided $3.2 million to the 982 individuals, which works out to about $3,200 apiece.

Company tests high-altitude airship over New Mexico desert - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A technology company that wants to bring broadband to more remote areas and monitor methane and other emissions from the oil and gas industry launched one of its airships from the New Mexico desert on Tuesday as part of a key test on the way to commercial operations.

Sceye Inc. is developing a high-altitude platform station that company officials hope will provide an option other than satellites and airplanes for boosting internet connectivity and collecting data on everything from industrial pollution to wildfire threats.

It took a couple of hours for the unmanned helium-filled station to reach the stratosphere. It will maintain its position there for 24 hours, a milestone that will bring Sceye closer to commercial operations over the next 18 to 24 months.

Founder and CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsenand said his team will aim for more longevity with subsequent flights from their home base in Roswell.

"Every flight is a big deal but every flight also is just another step in a process of iterative learning," he said during a virtual interview from Sceye's hangar where workers were busy prepping the massive airship for the flight.

Vestergaard Frandsenand said it takes about eight months to build a station, which consists of a sleek reflective fabric designed to operate in the stratosphere at 65,000 feet above the Earth's surface.

NASA several years ago proposed a challenge that called for designs that could fly higher and longer than existing airships, with scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California saying observations at that altitude could provide greater clarity. At the time, no airship could maintain an altitude in the stratosphere for more than eight hours.

Capable of lifting heavy payloads, Sceye's airship runs on solar panels and a bank of lithium-sulphur batteries.

"Whether we achieve our objective with this flight or achieve something that's short of the objective, we're going to learn a lot," he said.

The New Mexico Economic Development Department pledged up to $5 million in funding when Sceye announced it would locate in the state. The company has operations in Roswell and Moriarty, a small community near Albuquerque.

Sceye partnered last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico regulators to study air pollution and climate change over the coming years.

The state also has been studying accelerated formats for expanding high-speed internet, and state officials have said Sceye could play a role in that effort through a separate multimillion-dollar contract.

Medical patients, Ultra Health sue health insurers over cannabis coverage - KUNM News, Albuquerque Journal

A new lawsuit filed last week by six medicinal cannabis patients and top-dog marijuana dispensary Ultra-Health is arguing that health insurance providers should be picking up the cost of cannabis because of its use for behavioral health benefits.

As the Albuquerque Journal reports, the lawsuit is targeted at seven insurers across the state––including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico, True Health New Mexico, and Presbyterian Health Plan.

CEO and President of Ultra-Health Duke Rodriguez is no stranger to lawsuits within the cannabis world. He filed suits alleging retaliation from the State’s Department of Health, saying a previous court order was violated and the company was discriminated against regarding cannabis plant limits pre-legalization, among others.

The cannabis patients said they are looking for “recovery for themselves” and added they are unlawfully forced to pay for their own medical cannabis bills, unlike other medical services that insurance covers.

Justices rule against detained immigrants seeking release - By Mark Sherman Associated Press

The Supreme Court has ruled against immigrants who are seeking their release from long periods of detention while they fight deportation orders.

In two cases decided Monday, the court said that the immigrants, who fear persecution if sent back to their native countries, have no right under a federal law to a bond hearing at which they could argue for their freedom no matter how long they are held.

The justices also ruled 6-3 to limit the immigrants ability to band together in court, an outcome that Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote "will leave many vulnerable noncitizens unable to protect their rights."

In recent years, the high court has taken an increasingly limited view of immigrants' access to the federal court system under immigration measures enacted in the 1990s and 2000s.

"For a while, it seemed like the court was going to push back a bit. In extreme cases, it would interpret a statute to allow for as much judicial review as possible,"said Nicole Hallet, director of the immigrants rights clinic at the University of Chicago law school. "Clearly now, the court is no longer willing to do that."

The immigrants who sued for a bond hearing are facing being detained for many months, even years, before their cases are resolved.

The court ruled in the cases of people from Mexico and El Salvador who persuaded Homeland Security officials that their fears are credible, entitling them to further review.

Their lawyers argued that they should have a hearing before an immigration judge to determine if they should be released. The main factors are whether people would pose a danger or are likely to flee if set free.

Sotomayor wrote the court's opinion in one case involving Antonio Arteaga-Martinez, who had previously been deported to Mexico. He was taken into custody four years ago, and won release while his case wound through the federal courts. His hearing on whether he can remain in the United States is scheduled for 2023.

But Sotomayor wrote that the provision of immigration law that applies to people like Arteaga-Martinez simply doesn't require the government to hold a bond hearing.

The court, however, left open the issue of the immigrants' ability to argue that the Constitution does not permit such indefinite detention without a hearing.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court's opinion holding that federal judges can only rule in the case of the immigrants before them, not a class of similarly situated people.

Sotomayor dissented from that decision, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. She wrote that the ability to join together in a class was especially important for people who have no right to a lawyer and "are disproportionately unlikely to be familiar with the U.S. legal system or fluent in the English language."

The cases are Johnson v. Arteaga-Martinez, 19-896, and Garland v. Aleman Gonzalez, 20-322.

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

The northern Arizona city of Flagstaff is synonymous with mountains — lush with ponderosa pines, meadows and hiking trails that are a respite from the desert heat.

Now, parts of them are burning yet again this year, fueled by winds that grounded air resources Monday. Fire crews were anticipating more moderate winds Tuesday and throughout the week, which could help them get a better handle on the blaze that has largely spared homes but made a run into a wilderness area and toward a lava dome volcano.

Residents around the city looked toward the mountains as smoke billowed through the air and winds howled, some scared, some nervous — most hoping that moisture in the forecast late this week brings some relief.

"We're most definitely dry," Flagstaff resident Colin Challifour said late Monday. "The forests are dry. It's unfortunate. You don't like to see it."

Roughly 2,500 homes have been evacuated because of two wildfires burning on the outskirts of Flagstaff. One home and a secondary structure burned, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office said. Hundreds of other people in California and New Mexico have also been forced to flee homes threatened by wildfires.

In northern Arizona, Coconino County declared an emergency because of the wildfire.

Fire incident Cmdr. Aaron Graeser said the Flagstaff-area blaze is one of the top priorities in the country for firefighting resources. It was estimated at 8 square miles late Monday, but fire managers haven't been able to do aerial mapping.

Two other smaller wildfires northeast of the blaze merged, forcing evacuations in a more remote area Monday.

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. A springtime fire outside Flagstaff destroyed more than two dozen homes. Most of the residents who evacuated then are out of their homes again because of this latest wildfire.

The number of square miles burned so far this year is more than double the 10-year national average, and states like New Mexico have already set records with devastating blazes that destroyed hundreds of homes while causing environmental damage that is expected to affect water supplies.

Nationally, more than 6,200 wildland firefighters are 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 fire in the state's south have grown exceptionally over the last week, which is unusual. Southwest Alaska normally experiences shorter periods of high fire danger because intermittent rain can provide relief, but since mid-May the region has been hot and windy, drying out vegetation.

Favorable weather Monday helped slow the 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 protections for the Yup'ik community.

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

In California, evacuations were ordered for about 300 remote homes near a wildfire that flared up over the weekend in forest land northeast of Los Angeles near the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains. It had scorched about 1.5 square miles of pine trees and dry brush as of Monday and was 27% contained, fire spokesperson Dana Dierkes said.

A second fire in Tehama County in Northern California had destroyed 10 buildings, damaged four others and threatened about 160 structures, fire officials said. It was 20% contained Monday night.

Farther south in San Diego County, five people were rescued after a small wildfire broke out Monday near the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities 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.

The causes of the latest California fires were under investigation.

Authorities don't yet know what started the northern Arizona fire. A man who was camping near where the fire was reported Sunday was cited a day earlier for lighting toilet paper on fire in violation of a year-round fire ban in the area, but he is not charged with starting the wildfire.

Parts of U.S. Route 89, the main route to reach the Grand Canyon's East Rim entrance and through the Navajo Nation, remained closed, as did the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.

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.

Officer hailed as hero testifies at Capitol riot trial - By Michael Kunzelman Associated Press

A police officer lauded for his bravery during the U.S. Capitol riot testified Monday that a man carrying a Confederate battle flag jabbed at him with the flagpole before joining the mob that chased him up a staircase.

In his first public testimony since the Jan. 6, 2021, siege, Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman described his encounter with the flag-toting Delaware man, Kevin Seefried, and his adult son, Hunter, at their trial on charges that they stormed the Capitol together.

Goodman has been hailed as a hero for leading a group of rioters away from the Senate chamber as senators and then-Vice President Mike Pence were being evacuated. Goodman also directed Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to turn around and head away from the mob.

Goodman recalled seeing Kevin Seefried standing alone in an archway and telling him to leave. Instead, Seefried cursed at him and jabbed at the officer with the base end of the flagpole three or four times without making contact with him, Goodman said.

"He was very angry. Screaming. Talking loudly," Goodman said. "Complete opposite of pleasant."

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden is hearing testimony without a jury for the Seefrieds' bench trial, which started Monday and is scheduled to resume Tuesday. The Seefrieds waived their right to a jury trial, which means McFadden will decide their cases.

Widely published photographs showed Kevin Seefried carrying a Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol after he and his son entered the building through a broken window.

The charges against both Kevin and Hunter Seefried include a felony count of obstruction of an official proceeding, the joint session of Congress for certifying Joe Biden's victory over then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

During the trial's opening statements, defense attorneys said the Seefrieds never intended to interfere with the Electoral College vote count.

"Indeed, (Kevin Seefried) was not even aware that the electoral count was happening or was happening in the Capitol," one of his lawyers, Elizabeth Mullin, told the judge.

After rioters chased Goodman up a set of stairs, another Capitol police officer who confronted the mob near the Senate chamber recalled that Kevin Seefried asked, "Why are you protecting them?"

"I assumed he was talking about Congress," Officer Brian Morgan testified.

Before his encounter with the mob inside the Capitol, Goodman joined other officers in trying to hold back rioters as they clashed with police outside the building.

"It was like something out of medieval times, with one huge force clashing with another opposing force," Goodman said. "I've never seen anything like that ever."

Goodman said he had to retreat inside the building after getting pepper sprayed and exposed to tear gas deployed by police.

The Seefrieds aren't charged with assaulting any officers.

Mullin conceded that Kevin Seefried is guilty of two misdemeanor charges that he knowingly entered a restricted building and illegally demonstrated in the Capitol.

Hunter Seefried, then 22, may have acted "stupidly" but didn't intend to block Congress from certifying the election results, defense attorney Edson Bostic said.

Goodman recalled that Hunter Seefried was smirking but didn't see him acting aggressively or hear him yelling at police.

"He was just disobeying commands," Goodman said.

The Seefrieds traveled to Washington from their home in Laurel, Delaware, to hear Trump's speech at the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6.

They climbed over a wall near a stairwell and scaffolding in the northwest section of the Capitol and were among the first rioters to approach the building near the Senate Wing Door, according to prosecutors. After watching other rioters use a police shield and a wooden plank to break a window, Hunter Seefried used a gloved fist to clear a shard of glass in one of the broken windowpanes, prosecutors said.

In a court filing, prosecutors said the Confederate battle flag that Kevin Seefried brought from home was "a symbol of violent opposition to the United States government."

Mullin said Seefried didn't intend "to send any kind of message" by carrying the flag into the Capitol and regrets doing so.

McFadden, whom Trump nominated in 2017, is the only judge to a hold a bench trial for a Capitol riot case so far.

In April, he acquitted New Mexico resident Matthew Martin of misdemeanor charges that he illegally entered the Capitol and engaged in disorderly conduct after he walked into the building.

In March, McFadden acquitted a New Mexico elected official of engaging in disorderly conduct but convicted him of illegally entering restricted Capitol grounds.

McFadden has criticized prosecutors' handling of Capitol riot cases. He suggested that the Justice Department has been unjustly tougher on Capitol riot defendants compared with people arrested at protests against police brutality and racial injustice after George Floyd's 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is scheduled to preside over a bench trial for Jesus Rivera, a Pensacola, Florida, man charged with four riot-related misdemeanors. President Bill Clinton nominated Kollar-Kotelly to the court in 1997.

At least four other Capitol riot defendants have bench trials scheduled for this year.

Juries have unanimously convicted five Capitol riot defendants of all charges, a perfect record for prosecutors so far. More than 300 other defendants have pleaded guilty to riot offenses, mostly misdemeanors punishable by no more than one year in prison. Approximately 100 others have trial dates in 2022 or 2023. More than 800 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the Jan. 6 attack.