Massive New Mexico blaze races closer to rural resort towns

Southwest

Jerry Gomez looks through the remains of his home following a wildfire in Rociada, New Mexico, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The largest wildfire burning in the United States was heading toward mountain resort towns in northern New Mexico on Wednesday, prompting officials to issue another set of warnings for more people to prepare to evacuate as the fast-moving fire picks up momentum. Gomez is enthusiastic about re-building. (Luis Sanchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP)

(AP) — The largest wildfire burning in the United States was heading toward mountain resort towns in northern New Mexico on Wednesday, prompting officials to issue another set of warnings for more people to prepare to evacuate as the fast-moving fire picked up momentum.

Fire officials said the blaze was racing up slopes and along exposed ridge lines while tossing embers into the air that were carried ahead of the fire by gusts. After growing more than 50 square miles in a single day, the fire has now charred more than 370 square miles of tinder-dry forest since it started last month.

The towering plume of smoke created by the raging wildfire could be seen hundreds of miles away, but for the well-known tourist enclave of Taos, it was more unnerving.

“I think everyone is a little on edge,” Karina Armijo, a town spokeswoman, said Wednesday, adding that she’s been busy fielding calls from people who are wondering whether it’s still safe to visit. “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen a week from now versus three weeks from now — or even tomorrow.”

In winter, the challenging ski slopes just north of town draw people from around the world. Just last month, the Taos ski valley hosted the World Pro Ski Tour’s championship races. Art galleries, adobe churches and a rich history of Hispanic and Native American culture are the attractions in warmer months along with the aspen-covered biking and hiking trails that traverse the region.

A burnt home following a wildfire is seen in Sapello, New Mexico, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The largest wildfire burning in the United States was heading toward mountain resort towns in northern New Mexico on Wednesday, prompting officials to issue another set of warnings for more people to prepare to evacuate as the fast-moving blaze picks up momentum. (Luis Sanchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP)

Authorities stressed there was no immediate threat to communities near Taos, but new alerts for evacuations were issued for some locations as officials said Wednesday that modeling indicated flames would continue marching north and east amid two more days of windy and dangerously bone-dry conditions.

The fire already has burned through a forested landscape held sacred by its rural residents, many losing homes that have been in their families for generations. Some residents allowed to return Tuesday found only charred rubble. Others were more fortunate as the flames skirted around their homes.

Firefighters were working to protect buildings around the towns of Mora and Holman and in smaller villages to the north, while authorities closed many roads in the area due to firefighting activity, smoke and fire danger.

“This is tough firefighting business right here,” fire Incident Commander Dave Bales said in a briefing. “This is not easy, especially in the fuel types we’re in, in the Ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, even down into the grass. When we can’t fly aircraft, when we can’t get people on the direct edge of the fire, when it’s spotting over us, that’s a huge concern for us.”

Crews have been trying to direct flames around homes on the northern and southern ends of the fire — bulldozing firebreaks, putting up sprinklers, clearing trees and raking pine needles. More than 1,800 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to the blaze.

A federal disaster already has been declared because of the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire that escaped containment after it was set in early April to clear brush and small trees so they could not serve as wildfire fuel. That fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later.

Crews also were battling smaller fires elsewhere in New Mexico and Arizona.

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