President declares disaster in New Mexico wildfire zone

Firefighters have slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the U.S. in New Mexico as heavy winds relented

LAS VEGAS, N.M. -- Firefighters slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the U.S. as heavy winds relented Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to remote stretches of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez announced the presidential disaster declaration during an evening briefing by the U.S. Forest Service about efforts to contain the sprawling wildfire in northeastern New Mexico. It has fanned out across 258 square miles (669 square kilometers) of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.

“It will help us do that rebuilding and it will help us with the expenses and the hardship that people are facing right now,” the congresswoman said. “We're glad it happened this quickly.”

Fire bosses are seizing upon an interlude of relatively calm and cool weather to prevent the fire from pushing any closer to the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas and other villages scattered along the fire’s shifting fronts. Airplanes and helicopters dropped slurries of red fire retardant from the sky, as ground crews cleared timber and brush to starve the fire along crucial fronts.

Bulldozers for days scraped fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, population 13,000, while crews have conducted controlled burning to clear adjacent vegetation to prevent it from igniting. Aircraft dropped more fire retardant as a second line of defense along a ridge just west of Las Vegas in preparation for intense winds expected over the weekend.

Strong winds with gusts up to 45 mph (72 kph) are expected to return Saturday afternoon along with above-normal temperatures and “abysmally low" humidity that make for extreme fire danger, said Todd Shoemake, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. “Sunday and Monday are probably looking to be even worse.”

Nearly 1,300 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to the fire.

Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for an estimated 15,500 homes in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border Las Vegas. The tally of homes destroyed by the fire stands around 170 but could grow higher because officials have not been able to conduct assessment in all of the burn zones.

Biden's disaster declaration releases emergency funds to recovery efforts in three counties in northeastern New Mexico where fires are still raging and for southern New Mexico areas where wind-driven blazes killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes in mid-April.

The aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for people and businesses, a White House statement said.

Local law enforcement officials acknowledged the physical and emotion toll of the prolonged evacuations. Las Vegas Police Chief Antonio Salazar said his officers would provide “burglary patrols” for evacuated areas and help to maintain order at a local Walmart as people line up to purchase supplies.

“Repopulation, that's one thing we're very interested in,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said. “Everybody wants to get back home.”

Dan Pearson, a fire behavior specialist with the federal government, said weather forecasters predict two days of relatively light winds before the return of strong spring gales.

“Our prayers are working because we've had advantageous winds throughout the fire area today,” he said. “We'll take advantage of this fact over the next few days. ... What we can do is build resilient pockets."

The fire was contained across just 20% of its perimeter. Its flames were about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from Las Vegas, where schools were closed as residents braced for possible evacuation.

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept within about 5 miles (8 kilometers) of facilities at the U.S. nuclear research complex.

Fire crews worked to widen a road that stands between the fire and Los Alamos while clearing out underbrush and treating the area with fire retardant.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts have said. Fire officials also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.