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Northern New Mexico Winds Continue to Enable Wildfires

A couple hours before a sometimes-grim Sunday night briefing in Las Vegas, N.M., National Weather Service officials released a map of winds in New Mexico that put the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon blaze at 176,000 acres.

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(TNS) - Remorseless, unceasing winds — and the fires they enable — continue to keep much of Northern New Mexico on the edge.

The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire and Cerro Pelado Fire continued to advance Sunday, driven by an almost nightmarish weather event that promises no letup — day after day of high winds and bigger gusts that portend more evacuations and damage.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service predicted winds that could bellow up to 55 mph on Monday in Mora and San Miguel counties, where firefighters labored Sunday afternoon without badly needed air drops from slurry bombers and water-carrying helicopters. Without that help, they struggled to funnel the sprinting blaze away from small hamlets west of Las Vegas, N.M., and north of Mora.

"It's been a challenging day," Todd Abel, an operations chief for the fire, said Sunday night.

A couple hours before a sometimes-grim Sunday night briefing in Las Vegas, National Weather Service officials released a map of winds in New Mexico that put the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon blaze — now at 176,000 acres — in the crosshairs of a mighty storm that offers no immediate relief in the next few days.

Sunday's push was bad enough: Driven by gusts, there was a large fire run from the Mineral Hill area outside Las Vegas south to the San Geronimo, and another, perhaps more threatening jump in the north across N.M. 518 near the unincorporated community of Holman in Mora County. Both events, officials cautioned, could play havoc going forward.

"It's really moving and it's moving fast," said San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez, referring to the fire near Mineral Hill.

But particularly concerning to officials was the area near Holman, north of Mora, where the fire spotted Sunday across N.M. 518, considered a key fire break. The towns of Holman and Chacon were evacuated at midday and others were ordered to evacuate late Sunday night.

Late Sunday, as the lightning-fast movement threatened areas farther northeast, including Guadalupita, incident commander Dave Bales issued a dire warning to residents in the area who have not yet evacuated.

"This piece up here, up on the north end ... that piece is established," an emotional Bales said, waving his hand across a part of the map outlined in red. "Established to us means it's in the drainages and in the canyons. Our firefighters cannot engage that. With the winds that are going on right now, the 50 mph winds going on right now, this fire is moving rapidly to Chacon and Guadalupita."

Bales said those who choose not to evacuate put themselves in danger because the thick smoke limits visibility and makes it almost impossible to drive.

Bladen Breitreiter, a weather forecaster on the fire, said the upper-air system driving New Mexico's weather is huge in scope, starting on the Pacific coast and reaching the Rockies.

"That's what's causing this prolonged period of critical winds," he said, adding the usual respite that often comes in the evening wouldn't exist Sunday night and Monday.

Those looking for something positive clung to improvement in overall containment, now at 43 percent, attributed to quelling the fire's east side north of Las Vegas. The improvement allowed officials to also talk about letting some people back to their properties soon.

"We're getting a lot closer to repopulating those areas," said Lopez. "I know utilities personnel has been working diligently to get all of that stuff up and going. I know the highway department has been assessing their roadways as well. That's probably going to be coming here in the near future. So, that's some good news in what we're dealing with right now."

Lopez said officials have not been able to do full damage assessments because of the risk but said they are working with the Red Cross to make new attempts. He also said some areas had been hit twice, meaning another look will have to be taken to see if more structures had been lost.

Los Montoya, general manager of the electric co-op in the area, said personnel also are looking to see when and how quickly power can be returned to areas where fire is no longer a threat.

Early Sunday, fire officials said at least 172 homes had been lost in the fire, now in its second month.

Meanwhile, the news was nearly as alarming at the smaller Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains, which had burned 37,245 acres by early Sunday. As winds drove movement in the fire north and east, Los Alamos County announced a move one step closer to an evacuation order, going from "ready" to "set" in a three-step process that prompts residents to leave.

The change, the county said, will begin Monday morning.

The fire's movement was significant: According to a news release from Los Alamos National Laboratory, it was within 3 1/2 miles of lab property and seven miles from Los Alamos — a city where memories of a destructive wildfire in 2000 remain fresh.

The lab announced it would institute telework for non-mission essential employees.

Officials in the area emphasized the change in status was a precautionary measure.

"This is not an emergency. We just want people to get set," Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes said in a news release.

Cerro Pelado was at 11 percent containment and buffeted by high winds through much of Sunday.

Monday's wind forecast is not as dire as those faced in Mora County but remains significant.

Crews working the Cerro Pelado Fire were concerned about possible spot fires Sunday after high winds overnight pushed the blaze farther east and infrared images showed potential hot spots in canyons outside the fire zone. A fire behavior analyst said firefighters were concerned about movement through Alamo Canyon and perhaps to the top of Frijoles Canyon.


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