Historic Conditions Ahead

A few days of respite from extreme winds precede a grim forecast for firefighters over the weekend

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fires, the largest active wildfire in the United States and second largest in New Mexico’s history, has continued ravaging San Miguel and Mora counties throughout the week.

The fire’s footprint stands at 165,276 acres and 20% containment, with almost 1,300 personnel assigned to the blaze as of the latest report Thursday evening. Officials received a slight respite from relentless winds on Wednesday and Thursday, but have yet to breathe a sigh of relief, looking at weather forecasts for the weekend that show winds will pick up on Friday evening.

Thursday’s conditions closely resembled those on Wednesday, which enabled firefighters to make some progress on the blaze, including aircraft support throughout the whole day. Other days, high winds have prevented helicopters and airplanes from dropping water and slurry.

“Today was a very good day,” Dan Pearson, fire behavior analyst, said. “Tomorrow will also be a good day.”

Relative humidity overnight will help subdue fire activity, but the weekend’s forecast doesn’t look favorable. Pearson predicted 96 to 120 hours of continuous wind, little cloud cover and dry conditions.

John Pendergrast, the air resource advisor, issued a grim warning for those conditions over the weekend.

“I’ve been a National Weather Service employee for 29 years and 16 years on fire and I have never seen a forecast like this, anything close to it,” Pendergrast said. “It’s going to be a historic event because of the duration of the winds. There’s not going to be any let up in these winds.”

He advised property owners to take advantage of the mild winds over the next 24 hours to clear any potential debris that could blow away or catch fire. “Make sure you have an exit path,” he said.

Pendergrast predicted a smoky evening on Thursday night given the relatively slow winds, which allows the smoke to settle in areas of lower elevation.

There were minor changes to evacuations to the Hot Springs area. San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez recognized residents’ desire to return home but asked for patience given the uncertainty of the fire and not wanting to evacuate families again. Real time updates to evacuation orders can be found here.

“At this point the fire has not affected PNM or any of our customers or our system,” said Carlos Arras, an area manager for Public Service Company of New Mexico. Some homes do not have power, which is a result of intentional shut offs to protect firefighters working in those areas.

Officials said Las Vegas’ water supply was still meeting federal drinking water standards.

Organizations to support those impacted by the fires continue to accept donations for supplies and money.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden approved Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request for a presidential disaster declaration, which opens the door for more relief and resources for Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties.

According to a news release from her office, Lujan Grisham spent the past two days touring Northern New Mexico to survey the damage and meet New Mexicans impacted by the fires. She was joined by Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández on Wednesday to tour the Cerro Pelado Fire burning in Sandoval County by helicopter.

The Cerro Pelado fire in the Jemez Mountains has reached 29,368 acres and 13% containment as of Thursday morning.

In some good fire news, firefighters have reached 97% containment on the human-caused Cooks Peak Fire after burning 59,359 acres north of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires.

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