August 15, 2022

With the worst of the thick wildfire smoke having blown out of town, residents of this small northern New Mexico city tried to recapture a sense of normalcy Saturday as their rural neighbors hunkered down amid predictions of extreme fire conditions.

Shops and restaurants reopened, the historic center was no longer just populated by firefighters, but there was a widely felt sense of anxiety, loss, and wariness of what lay ahead.

“It’s literally like living under a dark cloud,” said Liz Birmingham, whose daughter had persistent headaches from the smoke. “It’s unnerving.”

While the city for now seemed spared of danger, rural areas were still threatened as the fire was driven by winds so fierce all firefighting aircraft had to be grounded. And the worst could be yet to come.

Wildland firefighters from several agencies throughout the country wait along state road 283.
AP
Wildfire evacuees Paul T. Vigil, center left, and Domingo Martinez greet each other at a shelter and supply depot at a middle school in Las Vegas.
Wildfire evacuees Paul T. Vigil, center left, and Domingo Martinez greet each other at a shelter and supply depot at a middle school in Las Vegas.
AP
Wind kicks up dust at the fairgrounds as firefighters meet and confer about the wildfire raging on the other side of the hill.
Wind kicks up dust at the fairgrounds as firefighters meet and confer about the wildfire raging on the other side of the hill.
AP

A combination of strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity were forecast by the National Weather Service to create an “exceptionally dangerous and likely historic stretch of critical to extreme fire weather conditions” for several days.

Some 1,400 firefighters worked feverishly to contain the largest fire burning in the U.S. The blaze, now more than a month old, has blackened more than 269 square miles — an area larger than the city of Chicago.

Part of the fire was started by Forest Service workers who lost control of a prescribed burn meant to reduce fire risk. State leaders have called on the federal government for accountability, including reparations.

Gabriella Duran helps sort through food donated to families choosing to remain in Mora, N.M..
Gabriella Duran helps sort through food donated to families choosing to remain in Mora, N.M..
AP
The remains of the part of the Pendaries Village & Golf Resort restaurant and clubhouse near Mora, N.M..
The remains of the part of the Pendaries Village & Golf Resort restaurant and clubhouse near Mora, N.M..
AP
Blackened tombstones and statues stand at the Rociada Cemetery.
Blackened tombstones and statues stand at the Rociada Cemetery.
AP

Nationwide, close to 2,000 square miles have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time this much fire had been reported at this point, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have combined to worsen the threat of wildfire.

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Thousands of residents have evacuated due to flames that have charred large swaths of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.

The fire’s main threat was now to the north, where flames burning vegetation clogging the forest floor threatened several small rural communities, fire spokesman Ryan Berlin said.

Wildfire evacuee Domingo Martinez gets a haircut from Jessica Aragón outside an emergency shelter in Las Vegas.
Wildfire evacuee Domingo Martinez gets a haircut from Jessica Aragón outside an emergency shelter in Las Vegas.
AP
A flare up near Cleveland, just down 519 from Mora, N.M. darkens the sky on Wednesday, May 4.
A flare-up near Cleveland, just down 519 from Mora, N.M. darkens the sky on Wednesday, May 4.
AP
Burned underbrush can be seen across the road from United World College of the American West.
Burned underbrush can be seen across the road from United World College of the American West.
AP

Firefighters, who typically rely on calmer winders and lower temperatures to make progress in the evening, have been hindered by unexpectedly strong winds at night.

The threat to Las Vegas, a city of 13,000, was reduced after vegetation was cleared to create containment lines. Local officials on Saturday allowed residents of several areas on the city’s northwestern outskirts to return to their homes, Berlin said.

The city looked like a ghost town earlier in the week, with businesses shuttered, schools closed and the tourist district empty but for resting firefighters. By Saturday, it was in a partial state of recovery.

Firehoses lay on the ground in the evacuation area near Mora.
Firehoses lay on the ground in the evacuation area near Mora.
AP
Liz Birmingham, 66, trains her dog Ciel at a class outside the Carnegie Library in Las Vegas. She said living in the city unnerving, as smoke and fire fluctuate with the winds.
Liz Birmingham, 66, trains her dog Ciel at a class outside the Carnegie Library in Las Vegas. She said living in the city unnerving, as smoke and fire fluctuate with the winds.
AP

National Guard troops carried cases of water, people lined up to sign up for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., met with local officials and toured the shelter housing some of the displaced.

“We don’t know if our houses are getting burned, or if it’s gonna stop,” said Domingo Martinez, an evacuee from rural Manuelitas northwest of Las Vegas. “I hope it dies down so we can go home.”

Martinez, who is staying with his son on the east side of town, visited an old friend and neighbor who had been living in the middle school shelter for 15 days.

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Twisted metal roofing and ashes remain of the Pendaries Village & Golf Resort clubhouse.
Twisted metal roofing and ashes remain of the Pendaries Village & Golf Resort clubhouse.
AP
Johnny Trujillo, 53, talks about battling the blaze that destroyed both his sister's home and his truck.
Johnny Trujillo, 53, talks about battling the blaze that destroyed both his sister’s home and his truck.
AP

Outside the school, Martinez got a free haircut from Jessica Aragón, a local hairdresser who volunteered her time.

“I love that everyone is coming together,” Aragón said. “I think a smile is worth a thousand words.”

Birmingham was one of four dog owners leading German shepherds and a black Labrador through an obedience course in a park next to a library. All had been touched in some way by the fire.

Local volunteers at the Mora Head Start building sort through donations for families remaining in Mora.
Local volunteers at the Mora Head Start building sort through donations for families remaining in Mora.
AP
The United World College of the American West sits empty of students but unharmed, while trees can be seen behind it scorched.
The United World College of the American West sits empty of students but unharmed, while trees can be seen behind it scorched.
AP

One was a construction worker whose work sites had all been reduced to ash.

Fire officials warned Las Vegas residents that they should still be ready to leave and not to let their guards down because winds will pick up. High winds and increasing smoke will also make it difficult — or impossible — to fly water-dropping choppers and planes dumping fire retardant.

On a mountain ridgeline outside of town, a sloppy line of red retardant could be seen on the trees. Residents were praying that the line and the wall of rock would hold.