Cedar Attanasio and Susan Montoya Bryan
LAS VEGAS, N.M. — With flames marching across wide swaths of northeastern New Mexico's tinder-dry forests, firefighters were taking a stand Wednesday in their fight against the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. to keep it from pushing any closer to the town of Las Vegas and other villages scattered along the fire's shifting fronts.
Like a game of chess, fire bosses were busy planning their next move and looking for spots where they could steal fuel ahead of the fire, starving it of more timber and brush.
Bulldozers for the last couple of days have been scraping fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, population about 13,000, while crews have been conducting burns to clear vegetation along the dozer lines. On Tuesday, airplanes and helicopters dropped tons of fire retardant as a second line of defense along ridge just west of town in preparation for the intense winds expected over the weekend.
Meanwhile, numerous fire engines and crews remained stationed Wednesday on the western edge of town.
Getting the right resources into the right areas when they can do the most good is the goal, fire officials said.
"And the chess board keeps getting bigger. That makes it even more complicated," fire information officer Andy Lyon said Wednesday, referencing a peak and ridge on the northern end of the fire that weren't factors just days ago. "So now that topography is part of our equation, part of the chess board."
The fire grew overnight to 250 square miles, with containment stuck at 20 percent of its perimeter. Strong winds were expected to blow the fire Wednesday toward Las Vegas. In one area, the fire was about a mile away but the real concern were the gusts of 60 miles or more that were expected to sweep over the area during the weekend.
New Mexico has been hammered by waves of hot, dry and windy weather. The latest forecast had it in the bull's-eye again.
Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said the heavy smoke and noise from aircraft battling the fire were horrifying at times but he sought to assure residents that crews were working tirelessly.
"People have not slept for weeks," he told residents. "We know strategically where those engines need to be, we know strategically where the fire retardant needs to go, we know strategically where they need to drop water."
While evacuations have yet to be ordered for the town, many residents are packed and ready to go and local school districts have canceled classes. An estimated 15,500 homes in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border the town have been affected by mandatory evacuations.
Martina Gonzales and her grandson watched Tuesday from their front yard as aircraft disappeared into a giant plume of smoke to fight the growing wildfire. Four-year-old Lukas yelled "airplane" every time one flew overhead in the effort to save Las Vegas, a commercial hub for the rural farming and ranching region.
Gonzales' car was packed with valuables in case an evacuation order came, but she was not sure where they would go. The residential care home where she works as a pharmacist started moving older clients Monday. Nearly 200 patients at the state psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas also evacuated Monday.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has requested a presidential disaster declaration, saying she hoped it would bring financial help for recovery efforts. That tally of homes destroyed by the fire stands around 170, but the governor said that number would likely increase when it's safe enough for officials to survey the damage.
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 say. Fire officials also point to overgrown and unhealthy forested areas where built-up vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.
Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that a dozen uncontained large fires have burned about 436 square miles in five states, including New Mexico. More than 3,500 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fires burning across the country.
On the northern flank of the big New Mexico fire, authorities said fire lines have kept the flames from reaching the towns of Cleveland and Mora.
The fire merged last week with another blaze sparked in early April when a prescribed fire set by land managers escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.
Another New Mexico wildfire burning through forested areas near Los Alamos National Laboratory has charred more than 42 square miles, destroying at least three homes and forcing evacuations.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix. 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.