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New Mexico blaze is now largest wildfire in state history

A firefighter puts out a hot spot from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in Mora, N.M., on May 13. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The colossal wildfire tearing through forests east of Santa Fe, N.M., is now the largest in New Mexico’s history.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire had burned 299,565 acres as of Tuesday and was 26 percent contained, officials said, surpassing the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, which burned 297,845 acres in southern New Mexico in 2012.

The fire is the largest in a series of wildfires to rip through New Mexico this spring, fueled by abnormally warm, windy and dry weather in recent weeks, as fire season in the West stretches earlier into the spring and later into the winter.

The cause of the Calf Canyon fire, which started on April 19 northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., is still under investigation. On April 23, it merged with the nearby Hermits Peak fire, which started April 6. That blaze was caused by spot fires — sparked by flying embers — that erupted beyond the boundaries of a controlled fire, set intentionally to help the ecosystem there. The massive blaze torching the Santa Fe National Forest is the largest in the United States so far this year.

A new analysis shows 1 in 6 Americans live in areas with significant wildfire risk

President Biden this month approved a major disaster declaration for New Mexico, which the White House said was experiencing an “unprecedented situation.” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said Monday evening that Biden had granted her request to make disaster unemployment assistance available to New Mexicans whose livelihoods were interrupted by the wildfires.

More than 2,000 emergency workers are fighting the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, which has destroyed hundreds of structures and forced thousands of evacuations across the region, including in the area surrounding Sipapu Ski Resort in Vadito, N.M. Threatened by the northern part of the fire, the resort has turned on giant snow-making machines to blast the flames with water. More than 3,800 homes in northern New Mexico were under mandatory evacuation orders, with another 5,600 under voluntary evacuation, said Travis Martinez, a spokesman for the New Mexico’s Emergency Operations Center.

Thunderstorms hit the area Monday evening, and authorities warned that high winds and lightning in the highlands could worsen the fire. San Miguel and Mora counties said the storms “will likely cause very active fire behavior and increase potential for fire spread,” with “critically dry fuels and near-record temperatures.”

The National Weather Service warned that “storms producing dry lightning and very little to no wetting rainfall will be an issue.”

There was some rain, however, in Las Vegas, where residents spilled into streets and parking lots, embracing the rain and even the hail.

“Thank God for the rain,” one resident posted on Facebook with a video of the rain and praying-hands emoji.

“Thank u lord,” another person wrote alongside a video of people cheering and raising their arms to the sky in the parking lot of a middle school turned evacuation center.

Still, San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said at a briefing Monday evening that while the rains brought some relief, “don’t get your hopes up too much, because it’s probably going to be drying out again.”

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The blaze has at times exhibited what meteorologists call “extreme fire behavior” in recent days, generating billowing smoke-filled clouds towering 30,000 feet, known as pyrocumulus. These clouds can sometimes generate their own weather, unleashing powerful, erratic wind gusts that can cause fires to spread even more.

The ballooning of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire comes just days after firefighters gained control over the Cooks Peak fire, burning just to the northeast. That fire encroached onto the Philmont Scout Ranch, based in Cimarron, N.M., destroying a historic cabin and miles of fencing, the ranch said.

The loss of the cabin to a wildfire — a rarity on the ranch, where most fires are small and located in the property’s backcountry — was “heartbreaking,” said Chip Campbell, chief ranger at Philmont.

Over the past month, the New Mexico fires, as well as others burning in Arizona and Colorado, have sent smoke across the Southwest, Texas and Oklahoma. But on Monday evening at Philmont, the winds had stopped pushing the smoke toward the ranch. “Right now, it’s actually very peaceful,” Campbell said in a phone interview Monday evening.

As the ranch prepares to welcome Boy Scouts for its summer programs, staffers are also mindful of the potential for the fire to bring more devastation. The 2018 Ute Park fire, which wreaked havoc on the ranch, is “definitely in the back of a lot of people’s minds,” he said.

“We care about Philmont and this property a lot, and we really want to put on the program for the Scouts,” Campbell said. “So we’re praying and hoping that the winds and precipitation are cooperative.”

The Weather Service office in Albuquerque wrote Tuesday that fire-fanning winds will ease some Wednesday. However, it cautioned that a combination of low humidity, strong winds and an unstable air mass will yet again generate dangerous fire conditions on Thursday, prompting the office to issue a fire weather watch.

Conditions conducive to fires have persisted since early April and show little sign of relenting. The frequency of these conditions fits into a trend toward more such days in recent decades.

Climate Central, a nonprofit science communications organization, analyzed the change in the number of “fire weather” days in the West between 1973 and 2020. It found a general rise, with New Mexico experiencing some of the greatest increases.

Rising temperatures from human-caused climate change are increasing the wildfire risk by intensifying drought and, thus, more rapidly drying out vegetation and making it more flammable. The mountains of New Mexico experienced much lower than normal snowpack during the winter and the state just observed its second-driest and 11th-warmest April on record.

A recent study showed the “megadrought” in the Southwest is the most extreme in 1,200 years.

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