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As largest fire in U.S. sweeps towards Mora, officials fear the worst

Courtesy of Shaun Griswold
Source New Mexico
View of the Calf Canyon / Hermit's Peak Fire from Santa Fe.

Projected to double in size in the coming days, the Calf Canyon/ Hermit’s Peak Fire continued to rage on May 2nd in northern New Mexico, threatening towns and villages and forcing thousands to flee.

Now, erratic winds are pushing the flames closer to Mora and Las Vegas.

From a farmhouse just seven miles from the blaze, New Mexico State Rep. Roger Montoya. D-Colfax, Mora, Rio Arriba & San Miguel counties,
chatted with KUNM to give an inside look at what’s happening on the ground.

STATE REP. ROGER MONTOYA: The Calf Canyon Fire is the key fire that we're talking about. It has been burning in the upper hills to the south of Mora. We're very, very close. It came down into the Cleveland area, which is sort of a suburb, if you will, of downtown Mora to the west.

The winds currently are headed due east which would take it potentially, and this is unofficial, through the town of Mora towards La Cueva, which is kind of a nexus of a critical area. The winds are projected to change to northeast. That could be really devastating for the other parts of Mora that have not yet burned towards Cleveland, Holman and Chacon.

I'm at a place where I cannot get critical data, I cannot reach and have not reached, for 12 hours, the Mora County Sheriff Americk Padilla. So, up until 15 minutes ago, we were without any line of communication in or out. But, we went to a farmhouse that had a gasoline powered generator, and we were able to sort of jimmy rig into their box. So, we now have communication.

KUNM: And as I take it, you have about 10 minutes of time to talk to us before that power runs out. Can you tell me what you're seeing from where you are?

MONTOYA: What I'm seeing is heavy smoldering in the foothills, up above, mostly the south and southwest of the township, where the fire moved aggressively last night through Monte Alpanaldo. I've just seen smoldering, they were able, it seems, to stop the fire from crossing [State] Highway 518, which is the critical artery that comes in and out. It did jump, but they were able to suppress it for now. It looks like the crews are working diligently to create firebreaks around the foothills. So that will not come down, hopefully, into structures.

It's a dire projection really, anyway, you paint this picture for the next eight days, the next 24 hours, 32 hours are going to be very critical for more potential serious devastation.

KUNM: Fire officials are saying they're bracing for more winds as you're alluding to. What's being done to prepare? Are we expecting these blazes to get even bigger?

MONTOYA: Yeah, I mean, the wind is fiercely strong. It's the worst-case scenario with the winds projected to go north and northeast. Right now they're due east, which is still bad because it will head through the rest of Mora and potentially into La Cueva. Guadalupita could be in danger when it starts to turn. And then there's a whole mountain range on the other side of highway 518 to the north, that if that catches fire, it could move into Chacon potentially into the Taos region, because it will cross the Taos county line.

KUNM: The largest blaze in the U.S. is happening currently right near Mora. What do folks need right now?

MONTOYA: People need information. There's a severe lack of communication. When the cell tower went out, everybody's basically in the dark. Like right now, what's happening is this community based, volunteer brigade of citizens that have just hunkered down and figured out how to get communication in and out.

Apart from that, I think food, water, clothing at the evacuation sites are really critical in Taos. Las Vegas is shifting because Las Vegas is under evacuation for certain areas in the northern part of the city. And because the winds are now to the east, as I understand, this is all colloquial information because I do not have direct official updates. So, just make sure that's clear.

We're guerilla-style. We're down in the valley just figuring out how to get communication and I'm so thankful that the neighbor's house... They evacuated. They left gasoline, a generator, and access to their home as a potential communication point. And indeed it is invaluable.

KUNM: Representative Roger Montoya, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me on such short notice and please be safe out there, okay?

REP. MONTOYA: God bless and thanks for the reporting. It gives us hope. Be safe and well.

Find an updated map of evacuations is available here.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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