LAS VEGAS, NM — With the worst of the thick wildfire smoke blowing out of town, residents of this small northern New Mexico town tried to regain a sense of normalcy Saturday as their rural neighbors cowered amid forecasts of extreme fire conditions.
Shops and restaurants reopened, the historic center was no longer just populated by firefighters, but there was a widely felt sense of anxiety, loss and distrust of what lay ahead.
“It’s literally like living under a dark cloud,” said Liz Birmingham, whose daughter suffered from persistent headaches from the smoke. “It is annoying.”
While the city seemed unharmed for now, rural areas were still at risk as the fire was driven by winds so strong that all firefighting planes had to be grounded. And the worst could be yet to come.
A combination of strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity was predicted by the National Weather Service to create an “unusually hazardous and likely historic range of critical to extreme fire weather” for several days.
Some 1,400 firefighters worked feverishly to contain the largest blaze in the United States. The blaze, now more than a month old, has blackened more than 269 square miles (696 square kilometers) – an area larger than the city of Chicago.
Part of the fire was started by Forest Service workers who lost control of a prescribed burn intended to reduce fire risk. Heads of state called on the federal government to account, including reparations.
Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time such a fire was reported at this point, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And the forecast for the rest of the spring does not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have combined to heighten the threat of wildfires.
Thousands of residents were evacuated as flames charred large swaths of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
The main threat from the fire was now in the north, where flames scorching vegetation clogging the forest floor threatened several small rural communities, fires spokesman Ryan Berlin said.
Firefighters, who typically rely on calmer winds and lower temperatures to make progress in the evening, were hampered by unexpected winds overnight.
The threat to Las Vegas, a city of 13,000, was reduced after vegetation was cleared to create containment lines. Local officials on Saturday allowed residents of several neighborhoods on the city’s northwestern outskirts to return to their homes, Berlin said.
The city looked like a ghost town earlier in the week, with businesses closed, schools closed and the tourist district empty but for firefighters at rest. On Saturday, he was in a partial state of recovery.
National Guard troops carried crates of water, people lined up to register for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief, and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D.N.M., met with local officials and visited the shelter housing some of the displaced people.
“We don’t know if our homes are burned down or if this is going to stop,” said Domingo Martinez, an evacuee from rural Manuelitas northwest of Las Vegas. “I hope it fades so we can go home.”
Martinez, who is staying with her son on the east side of town, visited an old friend and neighbor who had been living in the college shelter for 15 days.
Outside of school, Martinez got a free haircut from Jessica Aragón, a local hairstylist who donated her time.
“I like everyone coming together,” Aragón said. “I think a smile is worth a thousand words.”
Birmingham was one of four dog owners leading German shepherds and a black Labrador to an obedience class in a park next to a library. All of them had been affected in one way or another by the fire.
One was a construction worker whose sites had all been burned to the ground.
Firefighters have warned Las Vegas residents that they should always be ready to leave and not let their guard down as the winds will pick up. High winds and increased smoke will also make it difficult, if not impossible, to pilot water-dropping helicopters and planes dumping fire retardant.
On a mountain ridge outside of town, a sloppy line of red retarder could be seen over the trees. Residents were praying for the line and the stone wall to hold.
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