Las Vegas officials bracing for evacuations as Northern New Mexico fire edges closer to city
May 1—LAS VEGAS, N.M. — City officials on Sunday prepared for the possibility of mass evacuations of Las Vegas residents Monday as relentless winds pushed the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fire closer to the city and put other communities in a growing hunk of Northern New Mexico on edge.
"This is not a small fire," Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said at an emergency City Council meeting Sunday. "This is the largest disaster in New Mexico history — one of the largest in U.S. history."
The fire, which had grown to about 104,000 acres by Sunday morning, currently is not the biggest in state history, and to date, has not resulted in any reported fatalities. But its proximity to Las Vegas, and farther to the north, Mora, places it in the league with the Whitewater-Baldy, Las Conchas and Cerro Grande fires — 21st century monster blazes that changed landscapes and, in the case of Cerro Grande, communities for decades.
Officials on late Saturday speculated the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak conflagration — listed as 30 percent contained, despite more than 1,000 personnel on the scene — would at least double in size. It was an estimate that surprised almost no one in the San Miguel and Mora county region of the state, where smoke was ever-present and mandatory evacuation orders piled on through the day.
By Sunday evening, sites on the outskirts of Las Vegas, including Mineral Hill and Montezuma, looked to be in the potential path of trouble. Smaller communities far north of the city, including Mora, were no more secure: Officials ordered mandatory evacuation orders for the town early in the day.
"This is a big firefight," Dave Bales, the incident commander handling the fire, said Sunday night.
The remorseless constant through it all was the wind.
Wind, wind, wind.
It blew without letup throughout Sunday and seems unlikely to offer even the hint of relief through Wednesday.
Gary Zell, a meteorologist for the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, said in a briefing a "double-barrel system" is expected to bring four days of "critical fire weather," with low humidity, high temperatures and wind gusts of more than 45 mph in some areas.
Mark Defries, a spokesman for the incident management team that took over management of the blaze Sunday, said winds already were reaching speeds of up to 40 mph.
"The weather has not been our friend," he said. "Winds tomorrow [Monday] are going to come out of the west-northwest, which potentially pushes that fire out in the direction of Las Vegas."
The frustration over the winds was palpable.
"The wind keeps changing — [from the] southwest one day, then getting northwest, and then back to the southwest," Bales said.
As local officials fretted about what could occur during the next several days, Trujillo said there were not yet any mandatory evacuation orders in place for Las Vegas residents. But he noted the city was bracing for the possibility.
"We are working hard around the clock to make sure all the services are ready for the public," Trujillo said. "We are expecting winds to travel south tomorrow [Monday], which will push the fire closer to town."
Meanwhile, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham met with community leaders and elected officials in Las Vegas on Sunday. A spokeswoman said they discussed communications strategies and "the best operational framework to ensure we're getting the appropriate resources to meet each community's needs."
With the fire bearing down on even more people, state and local officials began marshaling efforts to help. The Santa Fe Fire Department said Sunday that, by Monday, four engines would be in Las Vegas, as well as an ambulance, two commanders and up to 20 firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
According to a news release, local firefighting unions were coordinating donations to help farmers and ranchers in the area, including troughs, hay, bowls, crates and paper products. The donations — including Gatorade, hot cereal, diapers and personal hygiene items — are being taken at Fire Station 5 on Siler Road.
Preparing for a crisis took on all the more importance as the scope of the fire grew larger and those who'd lost much of what they had found shelter in Las Vegas.
Charles Zurenko, volunteer site supervisor for the American Red Cross evacuation shelter at the Old Memorial Middle School, said the facility isn't in the preliminary evacuation zone. And if the needs become greater, other places, including the Glorieta Adventure Camps facility, are in consideration for additional shelter space. The site already is hosting students from United World College in Montezuma.
"Glorieta is being reserved with the state to provide housing for our citizens," Trujillo said.
Equipped to host 200 evacuees, the Old Memorial Middle School shelter has been housing an average of 27 people a night, Zurenko said.
That number could grow, depending on how the fire develops. Late Sunday afternoon, officials added El Turquillo, Lucero and Rainsville to the sites under mandatory evacuation orders. Several roads in the area are closed or are limited to one-way travel.
Andrew Vigil and his wife, Anita Rivera, whose home between Rociada and Sapello was destroyed by the fire on April 22, could attest to the realities brought by Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak — and the importance of getting out while exits were still available.
"We barely made it out," Vigil said. "We waited a little too long."
The couple escaped with their vehicles and dog and had no insurance on the camper and 400-square-foot addition where they lived.
The assessment of new destruction in the roughly 50 miles between Las Vegas and Mora was uncertain. Before Friday, the fire had destroyed more than 160 homes, mainly in the Rociada and Pendaries Village areas of San Miguel County. Several more homes were destroyed from Friday and into Saturday in the El Porvenir and Gallinas Canyon area, though officials haven't yet been able to complete damage surveys and provide details.
Evacuated students from the United World College USA in nearby Montezuma already had relocated to Glorieta on Saturday after spending a night at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. School will not be in session Monday for students at Las Vegas City Schools and West Las Vegas Schools.
Preparing for possibilities
Though Las Vegas police Chief Anthony Salazar reiterated an evacuation of the city was not underway, he acknowledged the ability of people in the area to see flames in the distance puts the area on edge.
"We cannot have any type of panic," Salazar said. "We are not shutting down anything right now."
Assuming city residents are asked to evacuate, police will begin knocking on doors in neighborhoods, he added.
Las Vegas interim fire Chief Steve Spann asked residents not to use fire hydrants to protect their homes.
"It's illegal," Spann said. "I do have personnel protecting our watershed, and we also have more crews coming in."
City Utilities Director Maria Gilvarry said the city's drinking water supply has been tested repeatedly. "So far, it's OK and plentiful," she said.
The Santa Fe National Forest also announced Sunday the entire Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District has closed to the public through December to protect public health and safety.
The Cooks Peak Fire farther north in Mora and Colfax counties was at 59,000 acres and 69 percent contained, with little growth since a day earlier.
In the Jemez Mountains, the Cerro Pelado Fire had grown about 10,000 acres since Saturday, to 17,885, and was only 10 percent contained. The wildfire so far has destroyed three homes and largely is burning in the footprint of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire.
Bandelier National Monument announced Sunday it was closing down due to the fire.
A new estimate for the Skiles 429 Fire, which sparked Friday in Union County along the Oklahoma border, reduced the acreage to 1,312 from 2,500 reported Saturday.
Cynthia Miller and James Barron contributed to this report.