Hours before President Joe Biden signed a disaster declaration for New Mexico’s ongoing wildfires, on May 4, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham stopped in Española to hear about local efforts and assure city officials that federal help was on the way.
“Today, we Americans are still hearing about Hurricane Katrina victims,” Lujan Grisham said, addressing City and County officials alongside Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.). “We’re not going to let that happen here. The White House has assured me that is not going to happen here.”
Three wildfires are currently burning within a 60-mile radius of Española, one of which — the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire — is now largest 2022 wildfire in the U.S. and the second-largest in New Mexico history as it burns more than 168,000 acres. To the southwest is the Cerro Pelado Fire, covering about 30,000 acres, and to the northeast, the Cooks Peak Fire is 97 percent contained after burning 60,000 acres.
During a May 6 update on the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire, U.S. Forest Service Operations Section Chief Todd Abel said that favorable weather conditions in the last few days allowed for successful containment efforts near Las Vegas and along Highway 283. Forecasts for the weekend, however, are dire, as Abel expects “some of the harshest firefighting conditions” he has seen in around 30 years of wildland firefighting.
“Tomorrow, we start a series of systems that come through over the fire area,” Abel said. “Some of the windiest systems I’ve seen ... the amount of wind, low (relative humidity), record temperatures — all that contributes to active fire burning.”
The National Weather Service in Albuquerque has issued a warning for extreme winds and heat across the state over the next several days that will likely worsen the fires and create conditions for new ones.
Biden’s disaster declaration makes federal funding available to affected residents and business owners in Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties, per a White House press release. This includes “grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs” for recovery in those areas.
Lujan Grisham stressed that the declaration was just one step in mitigating a disaster that originated, in part, by a federal agency’s ill-timed prescribed burn.
“It opens the door for reparation, since the federal government made a mistake,” she said, pointing back to the disastrous Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 — another prescribed burn gone wrong in windy conditions.
In the meantime, Rio Arriba County Manager Lucía Sánchez said the County has mobilized transportation for evacuees as well as assistance for those applying for Section 8 vouchers. The County also sent out an engine with four volunteer firefighters — the second such deployment lately — to help firefighting efforts, Sánchez said.
Española Emergency Manager Jeff Sargent has been making regular trips to Glorietta to deliver supplies donated by local groups and individuals.
The current drought and expected winds will likely prolong the crisis, Lujan Grisham said, and the current conditions across the state are pointing to rough season ahead.
“We’re three months early before fire season actually hits here,” Lujan Grisham said. “It’s an indication that this is a high-risk, long spring and summer ahead of us.”