Governor: Fire could destroy over 1,000 NM homes

·5 min read

May 18—Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the biggest in New Mexico history, could be responsible for the loss of between 1,000 to 1,500 homes and structures and displacing as many as 10,000 people.

In a news conference Tuesday, Lujan Grisham acknowledged she did not have hard figures — most recent estimates had put losses of homes at 366 — but added "given the nature of this fire ... I don't think it's an exaggeration."

Much of Tuesday's news on the fire front came from outside the areas in Mora, Taos and San Miguel counties where the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze is being fought. Her comments came the same day two of the state's national forests — the Santa Fe National Forest and Carson National Forest — announced they are closing Thursday because of the dry weather conditions and severity of the fire.

The orders remain in effect at both forests through the end of 2022 unless they are rescinded. Forest lands, recreational sites, roads and trails will be closed to the public. The 1.6 million-acre Santa Fe National Forest already had initiated restrictions on the building and use of campfires, smoking, or blasting or welding with an open flame on forest property.

"New Mexicans need to be on alert ... for most of the summer," Lujan Grisham said during the news conference, which focused on Federal Emergency Management Agency efforts to help New Mexicans in the wake of the historic fire, which grew to 299,565 acres with 26 percent containment.

The last time the both forests closed was in the summer of 2018 due to dry weather conditions and the potential for fire. Santa Fe National Forest closed for about five weeks in June and July that year. The 1.5 million-acre Carson closed for not quite two weeks for part of that time.

Summer monsoons kicked in by July 2018, bringing much needed moisture and a reopening of both forests.

In Southern New Mexico, Lincoln National Forest spokeswoman Laura Rabon said officials there are discussing following suit. Closure, she said, "is a real possibility for us in the near future."

Based on a Tuesday evening update presented by incident management teams overseeing the fire, crews were successful in holding lines around the perimeter of the blaze in most areas.

Firefighters have been building a defensive line, including hose and sprinkler systems, around Angel Fire to stymie potential growth in that direction. At the same time, a combination of aerial water drops, dozer lines and ground crew work has stopped the fire from becoming an "imminent threat" on some of the northern fronts of the blaze, said Jayson Coil, an operations section chief on the fire.

Earlier in the day, he talked about officials' plans to create containment lines in the N.M. 518 corridor near Angostura, where a finger of the fire has proven difficult to manage. But those lines will range many miles north toward Angel Fire as well.

In anticipation of growth, crews are forming defensive lines along ridges, employing advantageous terrain near Pot Creek and moving fire breaks west toward Black Lake. Coil said crews also hope to take advantage of the burn scar from the 2020 Luna Fire, where fuels are less dense.

Though he stressed firefighters would work hard to battle the fire where it stands, he also noted long-term success rests on defending the best ground possible.

"We need to anticipate a bad outcome; we need to anticipate that fire growth will mimic some of the fire growth of the past several weeks," said Coil, who has headed firefighting efforts through large chunks of the crisis. "Failing to plan for that eventuality and hoping it doesn't occur ... that's not what I get paid for. So we have to prepare for that. That's why you see the far out lines [on the map]."

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe warned people away from entering Carson National Forest come Thursday. He said county deputies under contract to the forest service will be patrolling the forest and "running people off or writing citations if we have to. We don't want to do that."

Meanwhile, FEMA officials are now on the ground trying to help those people recover, Lujan Grisham said. She said as of Tuesday 2,006 people have applied for aid and 446 have been approved for relief.

FEMA relief payouts amounted to $612,000 so far, the governor said.

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell said the aid from the agency — which can cover costs for the loss or damage to a home, unexpected rent for those fleeing the fire and medical expenses — is not "designed to make you whole."

Criswell said the largest payout to one recipient for home repairs is $39,400, but in some cases another $39,400 can be made available for other damage costs.

She said current FEMA relief payments are aimed at meeting immediate needs and it will take time for federal officials to get into fire zones and accurately assess the structural damage to homes and other buildings.

Meanwhile, state Forester Laura McCarthy said officials are keeping their eyes on the Black Fire, which rapidly has grown to more than 56,000 acres since it started Friday. That fire started about 25 miles north of Mimbres in the Gila National Forest in Catron County.

McCarthy said the fire grew in size by more than 37,000 acres in just one day. More than 500 firefighters are combating that blaze.

But McCarthy said there was good news in the continued fight against the Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains. The blaze is 71 percent contained and is making little headway as it moves over area where forest thinning and fire scars from previous fires are depriving it of fuel.

With more than 2,000 firefighters committed to the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire — which has been fed by unpredictable and very high winds — Lujan Grisham said it's a matter of time before those fire crews gain the upper hand.

Noting the fire is "a long-haul event in New Mexico," she said those firefighters are "trained to do one thing — fight and win against fires. They don't stop. They will win."