LAS VEGAS, NM (Associated Press) – With the worst of the thick bushfire smoke raging outside the city, residents of this small northern New Mexico city tried to regain a sense of normality on Saturday as their rural neighbors gathered amid forecasts of severe fire conditions.
Shops and restaurants reopened, and not only did firefighters inhabit the historic center, but there was a widespread sense of worry, loss, and wariness of what lay ahead..
“It’s like living under a dark cloud,” said Liz Birmingham, whose daughter has constant headaches from smoke. “It’s annoying.”
While the city currently seemed out of danger, the rural areas were still threatened as the fire was driven by the winds so strong that all firefighting aircraft had to be grounded. The worst is yet to come.
The National Weather Service has forecast a combination of strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity to create a “extremely dangerous and potentially historic stretch of fire-severe weather conditions” for several days.
About 1,400 firefighters worked frantically to contain the largest fire in the United States. The fire, 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 specific burn intended to reduce fire risk. State leaders called on the federal government for accountability, including reparations.
Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, and 2018 was the last time this many fires were reported at this point, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And forecasts for the rest of spring do not bode well for the West, where prolonged drought and warmer temperatures due to climate change have combined to exacerbate the risk of wildfires.
Thousands of residents were evacuated as fires ravaged swathes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
Fire spokesman Ryan Berlin said the main threat to the fire is now heading north, where blazing vegetation clogging the forest floor threatens several small rural communities.
Firefighters, who usually rely on quieter winds and cooler temperatures to make progress in the evening, were hampered by unexpectedly strong winds at night.
The threat to Las Vegas, a city of 13,000 residents, has been reduced after vegetation was removed to create containment lines. Berlin said local officials on Saturday allowed residents of several districts in the city’s northwest suburbs to return to their homes.
The city looked like a ghost town earlier in the week, as businesses shuttered, schools were closed and the tourist district became clear of firefighters. By Saturday, she was in partial recovery.
National Guard troops carried cases out of the water, and people lined up to register for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US senator. Martin Heinrich, DNM, met with local officials and toured the shelter housing some of the displaced.
“We don’t know if our homes are burning, or if they will stop,” said Domingo Martinez, one of the evacuees from rural Manuelitas northwest of Las Vegas. “I hope he dies so we can go home.”
Martinez, who lives with his son on the east side of town, visited an old friend and neighbor who had been living in a middle school shelter for 15 days.
Outside of school, Martinez got a free haircut from Jessica Aragon, a local hairdresser who volunteered her time.
“I like everyone to be united,” said Aragon. “I think a smile is worth a thousand words.”
Birmingham was one of four dog owners leading German Shepherds and a black Labrador through an obedience course in a park next to a library. Everyone was affected in some way by the fire.
One of them was a construction worker whose work sites had been reduced to ashes.
Fire officials have warned Las Vegas residents that they must remain prepared to leave and not let their guards down because the winds will pick up. High winds and rising smoke will make it difficult – or impossible – to launch water-dropping helicopters and fire-retardant jets.
On the mountain peak line outside the city, a filthy line of red dampers could be seen on the trees. Residents were praying that the line and the rocky wall would hold.
Millie reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Paul Davenport and Michelle A. Monroe in Phoenix contributed to this report.