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State of emergency declared as New Mexico wildfires rage

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed emergency declarations as 20 wildfires continued burning in nearly half of the state’s drought-stricken 33 counties.

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has classified five of those fires as large. This includes the Hermits Peak fire in northern New Mexico, which started April 6 and then merged with the newer Calf Canyon fire Saturday to form the largest blaze in the state. This led to widespread evacuations in Mora and San Miguel counties as winds fanned the flames. As of Wednesday morning, that fire had spread across nearly 60,200 acres and was only 12% contained, according to Inciweb.

More than 200 structures have been charred by the New Mexico fires and an additional 900 remain threatened, Lujan Grisham said.

Fire management officials said an exact damage count was unclear because it’s still too dangerous for crews to go in and look at all the homes that have been lost.

Some 1,000 firefighters were battling the wildfires across New Mexico, which already has secured about $3 million in grants to help with the fires. This was thanks to one of Lujan Grisham’s emergency declarations covering Colfax, Lincoln, San Miguel and Valencia counties.

“We do not know the magnitude of the structure loss. We don’t even know the areas where most homes made it through the fire, where homes haven’t been damaged or anything like that,” Jayson Coil, an operation sections chief, told the Associated Press.

Funding also was secured for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management “to assist the affected counties with emergency measures, help prevent additional damages, repair public infrastructure and lessen the overall recovery time.”

Lujan Grisham said she has asked the White House for more federal resources and she’s calling for a ban of fireworks statewide.

“We need more federal bodies for firefighting, fire mitigation, public safety support on the ground in New Mexico,” she said. “It’s going to be a tough summer. That is why … I will be asking every local government to be thinking about ways to ban the sales of fireworks.”

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall, some scientists have said. The problems have been worsened by decades of fire suppression and poor management along with a more than 20-year drought that some studies have linked to human-caused climate change.

Every place in New Mexico is still under some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with about 63% of the state under “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the two worst categories.

Truckers can do their part in preventing new fires from starting in these drought-stricken areas:

  • Avoid parking on grassy areas.
  • Avoid dragging chains that could produce sparks.
  • Avoid throwing cigarettes into grassy areas.

Six large wildfires are burning in five other states — two in Arizona as well as one each in Alaska, Florida, Nebraska and Virginia — according to the NIFC.

The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings in many parts of the Southwest, including much of New Mexico, because forecasters expect winds to become gusty again Wednesday. Also, daytime humidity will fall below 10% and there’s little rain in sight for the near future.

The combination of the wind, drought and dry air will produce elevated to critical fire conditions across the region that could last through Friday. The threat could spread as far east as Texas and Oklahoma.

Smoke may limit visibility for drivers in some locations and roads may be closed near some fires.

Major lanes of concern

  • Interstate 20 in Texas from Pecos to Abilene.
  • Interstate 25 from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Pueblo, Colorado.
  • Interstate 40 from Kingman, Arizona, to Oklahoma City.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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