LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Strong winds continued into the day Sunday, helping spread the second-largest wildfire on record in New Mexico farther into small farming communities in the state’s mountain valleys, as crews expect many more days of severe conditions.
Although no deaths have been reported, the fire has destroyed at least 276 structures and led to the evacuation of nearly 13,000 residences.
Here in a town of more than 13,000 people about 120 miles northeast of Albuquerque, residents banded together in the face of uncertainty.
At a former middle school now serving as a shelter, Janna Lopez dished out plates of pasta, brisket and pulled pork on Saturday evening.
Lopez, who was evacuated from her home in Las Vegas about a week ago and is now staying with her cousin, has been coming to the shelter to serve other evacuees every day. It was a sense of helplessness that moved her to do something for people whose lives had been upended by the fires.
“I was crying at home saying, ‘What can I do?’ ” Lopez said. “And that’s when it evolved — we can cook.”
So she and her family made a full New Mexican meal of pozole, enchiladas and red chile to take to one of the evacuation shelters. She then joined the not-for-profit World Central Kitchen’s efforts to provide food.
She still remembers the trees burning as she packed up papers and grabbed photos of her 8-year-old daughter off the walls in the two hours she had to gather her belongings.
“Just a lot of worry here — when can we go home, can we go home?” Lopez said.
Winds were so strong that they swung treetops and street signs, while dusting the city with bits of white and black ash. The air was filled with the smell of burning wood, the sky covered with gray haze.
By nightfall, orange flames outlined steep slopes, and pillars of light formed where trees were torched.
“The high winds have been the biggest factor against us,” Michael Montoya, a Las Vegas city council member, told The Washington Post on Saturday. “There’s no end in sight.”
Todd Abel, operations section chief with the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, said Sunday morning that aerial crews were working to contain the fire. But the strength of the winds had grounded many plans and aircraft, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
Winds of 30 to 40 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph, were “incredible” and “precedent setting,” Abel said, adding that they are expected to continue through Monday.
The fire, now more than a month old, has already burned 176,273 acres and is 43 percent contained, said Mike De Fries, information officer with the Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency group that organizes wildfire response. In late April, it merged with the Hermit’s Peak Fire to the east, a prescribed burn that fire crews lost control of amid strong winds. The cause of the Calf Canyon Fire is under investigation.
A crew of 1,685 personnel and a large aircraft fleet — including four water scoopers and 12 helicopters — are working feverishly to combat the fierce blaze, which has a perimeter stretching roughly 300 miles.
“Right now, we are in this multiday wind event and we have our resources deployed to take on fire in areas where it’s being most aggressive at pushing on the actual perimeter of the fire or threatening communities,” De Fries told The Post on Sunday.
“The fire definitely is pushing to grow, and we’re just trying to protect the communities and limit the growth,” he added.
The winds have pushed the fire toward rural communities north of Las Vegas, De Fries said, with more evacuation alerts issued there Sunday afternoon. Las Vegas, the most densely populated area in the fire’s vicinity, has seen some evacuation orders lifted as containment efforts have reduced the threats to that city.
But with high winds creating erratic fire behavior expected to last several days, many people who have been out of their homes for weeks may be asked to continue to do so for days.
The strong winds overlapping with dry air, low humidity and above-average temperatures created what the National Weather Service described as “dangerous conditions” on Sunday. Authorities had warned these tinderbox conditions could lead to rapid wildfire spread and new fire starts throughout the day Sunday and in the following days.
On Sunday, Dave Bales, incident commander with the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, described the weather Sunday as “unheard of in this part of the world,” with winds expected to blow well into this week without interruption.
“With 50-mile-per-hour-plus winds, this fire is moving rapidly,” Bales said Sunday night. “It’s coming and it’s coming fast.”
Most of the evacuation and emergency operations were being coordinated from Las Vegas. As many as 3,000 more homes in the Las Vegas area could be told to evacuate. Officials have already emptied a psychiatric hospital, the jail and the United World College boarding school in the town.
Evacuation alerts began Sunday in a third county, Taos, on the northwest edge of the fire. Fire officials are stressing that for people who have remained in evacuation areas, it is time to leave before smoke or fire makes that impossible.
On Saturday evening, San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez warned residents to evacuate “before it’s too late” and urged people to brace for the worst given the expected dangerous conditions.
“It’s hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen, but it ain’t good,” Lopez said.
Located in the higher terrain east of Santa Fe in Mora and San Miguel counties, in the northern New Mexico, the Calf Canyon Fire is among six large blazes burning in New Mexico.
The fires have burned more than 270,000 acres so far this year, and the fire season is just entering its peak period. Sunday also saw the residents of Los Alamos alerted about possible evacuations early this week, as the Cerro Pelado Fire to the west of Santa Fe picked up in the high winds.
“We can’t put it more plainly than this — if you are in a mandatory evacuation area, you need to GO NOW,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) tweeted Saturday night. “Tonight we will enter an exceptionally dangerous period of extreme fire weather. As severe winds pick up, conditions may worsen and air support may be limited.”
On Sunday night, she tweeted that several communities in Mora County were under an emergency evacuation order.
Villegas reported from Washington.