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New Mexico reached a grim milestone Monday, as officials announced that the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is now the largest wildfire in state history.
On Wednesday, April 6, U.S. Forest Service officials started a prescribed burn northwest of Las Vegas as part of a project to protect the Gallinas Watershed.
But high winds spread the fire outside the 1,200-acre project boundary.
By 4:30 p.m., forest officials renamed the incident the Hermits Peak wildfire and started a full suppression strategy.
“Mother Nature has played so many different variables on us over the past 40-some days,” said San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez. “You know, this fire is doing a lot of things I thought it would never do, and here we are today still dealing with it.”
The fire perimeter has grown to 298,060 acres and is 27% contained as of Monday evening.
More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze.
The fire has destroyed at least 581 structures, including at least 262 homes, according to data from the Governor’s Office and the Southwest Coordination Center.
Thousands of residents have been displaced across four counties.
As conditions have improved on some of the fire’s fronts, authorities are preparing for critical fights in other areas.
Pecos Canyon areas including Holy Ghost and Tres Lagunas have moved into “set” evacuation status.
“The canyon, it’s just one way up and one way down,” Lopez said. “It’s just very concerning to us.”
Some roads south and east of Mora will reopen on Tuesday.
Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna thanked firefighters for helping the community through a “survival period” during the “monster fire.”
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Serna said.
Fire and utility crews are working on returning residents just west of Las Vegas to their homes.
Rain fell in Las Vegas on Monday, offering a little relief for an area where two weeks before, a state-operated psychiatric hospital was forced to evacuate nearly 200 patients as the blaze’s eastern edge approached.
Ken Watkins, an operations section chief working the fire’s southern zone, said the region had 20 to 25 minutes of “really, really good rain.”
“This is the first time this area has seen that in a long time,” Watkins said.
But the fire’s northern and western perimeter continues to grow.
The Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort in Taos County is under mandatory evacuations.
Fire crews are using Sipapu as a staging location. Employees at the small ski area have turned on snow-making machines to help protect land and structures.
Angel Fire Resort has delayed its summer opening until at least May 27.
The village has warned residents to be prepared for possible evacuations, and areas just south of Angel Fire are under mandatory evacuation orders.
Greg Ralph, Angel Fire Resort marketing director, said the decision to delay opening was made to assist fire crews and keep guests safe.
“We are so thankful for the incredible response of the firefighting teams who have brought manpower and resources to aid in defense of our mountain community,” Ralph said.
Ground crews and “super scooper” planes worked near Angostura in Taos County on Monday to keep the fire south of N.M. 518.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said that if the Peñasco shelter has to be evacuated because of the fire, law enforcement would relocate people to Taos or Red River.
“We are all one family – we will not leave anybody behind,” Hogrefe said.
Fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner said he doesn’t expect major fire growth on Tuesday.
But the fire interior will likely remain very active.
“There are many pockets of unburned fuels, and we’re going to continue to see those burn throughout the next week or two weeks as fire approaches,” Turner said. “Some of those pockets may be very sizable.”
Before Monday, New Mexico’s largest-ever wildfire was the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire.
That fire started in the Gila National Forest in mid-May 2012. It burned 297,845 acres, destroyed 12 homes and injured eight people before burning out in July 2012.
The Calf Canyon Fire started April 19, and officials are investigating the cause.
Fire officials announced April 23 that the blaze had merged with Hermits Peak.
The record acreage of the massive northern New Mexico blaze is just one indication of an intense, devastating and early wildfire season for the state.
Two April wildfires in and near Ruidoso destroyed more than 200 homes and killed two people.
The Cooks Peak Fire burned more than 59,000 acres north of Ocate and forced evacuations in Colfax and Mora counties.
This year’s fire season shows few signs of slowing as New Mexico continues to grapple with prolonged drought.
Smoke from the Bear Trap and Black fires south of Albuquerque prompted Bernalillo County to issue a health alert for wildfire smoke Monday afternoon and evening.
A fire that started May 1 about 20 miles southwest of Magdalena has grown to more than 13,500 acres in the San Mateo Mountains.
The fire is 30% contained.
Shilow Norton, operations section chief for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 4, said areas that burned in previous wildfires are helping crews address the Bear Trap Fire’s southern perimeter.
“They’re looking at any of these old control lines that they used during the (2016) North Fire … making sure that they’re ready if that fire was to progress,” Norton said.
The Cerro Pelado Fire burning east of Jemez Springs has grown to more than 45,600 acres and is 62% contained as of Monday evening.
Isaac Downing, an operations trainee with the fire team, said during a community meeting at Los Alamos High School that crews are in “search and destroy mode” to attack hotspots.
Los Alamos County has been downgraded to “ready” evacuation status.
Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument remain closed.
The Black Fire 25 miles north of Mimbres in the Gila National Forest has burned more than 18,700 acres and is 0% contained.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.