Nearly half the state is dealing with wildfires as a result of high winds and dry conditions on April 22, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this afternoon during a news briefing. Specifically, as of 3 pm, the state had 20 fires in 16 counties, she said. “Yesterday’s exceptionally strong winds, dry fuels, and the low, frankly, extremely low humidity around the state resulted in multiple new fires,” she said, “sparking and burning a total of more than 25,760 acres in one day.”
The governor, who briefed the news media in person from the state Department of Homeland Security accompanied by emergency managers and forest officials, described the current conditions as “unprecedented in New Mexico history. It is only April, and yet we are seeing fire spread that we have only ever seen in this state—and in many states, frankly in the Southwest—in late May, and June. So our risk season is incredibly and dangerously early.”
Which means a longer, “more dramatic and quite frankly, more dangerous, significant fire season.”
Many of yesterday’s new fires were immediately extinguished, she said, and temperatures dropped today but “in and of itself, it’s not enough.” Wind speeds on Friday were recorded at 74 mph at the Las Vegas Airport yesterday and exceeded 90 mph atop Kachina Peak in Taos. While winds are expected to decrease tonight and in the coming days, that may not offer enough of a reprieve, the governor said, as the fires themselves create their own atmospheric conditions. “We are grateful for any better weather conditions,” she said, but “we are also cognizant, this is going to be a tough, long week.”
The Calf Canyon Fire remains the top concern. Earlier today, fire managers began reporting its combined acreage with the Hermits Peak Fire, and estimated it at 42,341 acres. The governor said it has burned nearly 35,000 acres and is threatening close to 900 homes. The number of homes potentially burned in that area can’t be determined yet because of conditions preventing that assessment, but over 200 structures have been lost in fires overall, including those burned in the McBride Fire in Ruidoso.
Overall, more than 1,000 firefighters are battling blazes across the state, with the governor in touch earlier today with the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency about federal assistance. Yesterday, the governor signed emergency declarations for Mora, Colfax, Lincoln, San Miguel and Valencia counties, which makes federal money available.
Regarding the Cerro Pelado Fire burning east of Jemez Springs, it remained 0% contained at 4,688 acres this afternoon, with evacuations issued for several nearby communities. Los Alamos National Laboratory issued a news release this morning that the fire thus far did not present an “immediate threat” to either the lab or Los Alamos County. In response to a question from SFR, Lujan Grisham reiterated the Cerro Pelado Fire does not present an immediate threat, but also referenced the devastating Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos in 2000.
“I wish I could say, based on your question, there is nothing to worry about in Los Alamos County,” she said. “We are aware that we need to be very productively engaged in every fire in every community, that one included. It has high risks.”
The governor also emphasized the fast-moving evacuation orders—emergency managers estimated there were more than 30—and the need to leave when officials activate “go” status under the “Ready, Set, Go” system (updates on evacuation statuses can be found via the Homeland Security Department’s wildfire site).
“Anyone in a county with a fire or near a fire needs to ready themselves to leave their homes,” the governor said. “Because these winds and the weather change so dramatically. And the drought conditions in this state are so incredibly dangerous. You need to be ready. Set means you are packing your car. That’s what set means. Set does not mean hosing down your house trying to save it. And I know that those instincts must be so fierce, particularly for New Mexicans who have lived in these homes for hundreds of years and have homesteaded and had generations of families on these ranches. Your lives are more important. And go means you’re driving right now.”
As for the causes of the current fires, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Kelly Hamilton said they are all “under investigation.” One notable exception: The Hermits Peak Fire, which grew out of a prescribed burn earlier this month, and for which forest officials have apologized. The governor, while acknowledging the importance of prescribed burns for wildfire mitigation, said she had been “barking” at federal officials to avoid having them during the windy season.
Indeed, State Forester Laura McCarthy confirmed “there probably won’t be any more prescribed burning in the spring.” Rather, she said, forest managers would look to the fall when “we may have a burn window right after the monsoon.”
But the governor also stressed that the dire fire season that has begun comes not from just one source, but reflects the reality of climate change. She plans to ask local governments on Monday to ban fireworks this summer, and discussed a variety of other mitigation work underway.
“We’re not doing it wrong,” she said, “but 20 or 30 years ago, we didn’t do enough to attack the climate crisis. We didn’t do enough to get ready for this kind of extreme weather. All the other things that we’re doing are intended to get us far ahead of this situation that we find ourselves under as possible, so that your kids aren’t at a press briefing, talking about complex fires and the impact they’re having on communities.”