Fire crews close in around massive New Mexico wildfire

Smoke rises from wildfires near Las Vegas, N.M., Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Firefighters slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the U.S. as heavy winds relented Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to remote stretches of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

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Smoke rises from wildfires near Las Vegas, N.M., Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Firefighters slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the U.S. as heavy winds relented Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to remote stretches of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April. (Roberto E. Rosales/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Firefighters in New Mexico are taking advantage of diminished winds to build more fire lines and clear combustible brush near homes close to the fringes of the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. The blaze has charred hundreds of square miles of tinder-dry forest, destroying dozens of homes and triggering the evacuation of thousands across an expansive stretch of rural northeastern New Mexico

LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) — Firefighters in New Mexico took advantage of diminished winds Thursday to build more fire lines and clear combustible brush near homes close to the fringes of the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. They did so ahead of what is expected to be several consecutive days of intense hot, dry and extremely windy weather that could fan the blaze.

“Today, the conditions were kind of moderated,” Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst, said during a largely hopeful evening update by the U.S. Forest Service and law enforcement officials. “And tomorrow is going to be another good day."

But Pearson warned that starting Saturday, clear skies will bring more intense solar heat accompanied by 30 mph (48 kph) winds with days of high winds to follow.

The fire has marched across 258 square miles (669 square kilometers) of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, destroying dozens of homes and prompting evacuations for thousands of families, many of whom have called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains home since their Spanish ancestors first settled the region centuries ago.

President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to the areas devastated by fire since early April. The aid includes grants for temporary housing and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for people and businesses.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham traveled through northern New Mexico Wednesday and Thursday to survey the damage and chat with affected residents at a humanitarian kitchen, an evacuation shelter and an elementary school.

The start of the conflagration has been traced in part to a preventive fire initiated by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce flammable vegetation. The blaze escaped control, merging with another wildfire of unknown origin.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who accompanied Lujan on a helicopter flight to view affected areas and meet with fire officials, on Thursday pressed a top Forest Service official to fully investigate the decision to start the “controlled burn” and disclose whether the agency considered the effects of climate change and a mega-drought afflicting western states.

“What protocols or controls were in place to make sure a controlled burn does not get out of hand? Did the U.S. Forest Service follow these protocols," the congresswoman wrote to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.

Evacuations that have now lasted weeks have taken a physical and emotional toll on residents. Classes were canceled at area schools for the week, some businesses in the small northeastern city of Las Vegas have closed due to staff shortages and some customers of the electric cooperative that serves surrounding areas have had no power for weeks.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said firetrucks, a fleet of aircraft and other equipment have been brought in to the area to corral the flames and “we're ready for anything that does come.”

But it's still too soon to let people return to outlying areas that burned earlier because there are pockets of unburned brush and trees that can serve as fuel for the blaze within the fire's perimeter.

“We've come to this crossroads on a few different occasions, where we were feeling good about it and we come up to a wind event and it hasn't went as planned,” Lopez said.

Relatively calm and cool weather in recent days has helped firefighters to keep the fire in check around its shifting fronts.

Bulldozers scraped more fire lines Thursday while crews conducted controlled burning to to clear vegetation and prevent it from igniting. Aircraft also dropped more fire retardant in preparation for the heavy winds predicted this weekend.

Gusts up to 45 mph (72 kph) are expected Saturday afternoon along with above-normal temperatures and “abysmally low" humidity that make for extreme fire danger, said Todd Shoemake, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. “Sunday and Monday are probably looking to be even worse.”

Nearly 1,300 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to fight the fire, while about 2,000 wildland firefighters are battling other blazes elsewhere in New Mexico and around the U.S.

Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept within about 5 miles (8 kilometers) of facilities at the U.S. nuclear research complex.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, according to scientists and fire experts. Fire officials also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.

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Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Anita Snow and Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

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A firefighting airplane drops slurry on a wildfire near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

A firefighting airplane drops slurry on a wildfire near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A firefighting airplane drops slurry on a wildfire near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

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A firefighting plane flies over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

A firefighting plane flies over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A firefighting plane flies over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Smoke and dust sweep across a field near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. A fire in the area has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Smoke and dust sweep across a field near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. A fire in the area has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Smoke and dust sweep across a field near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. A fire in the area has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

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A helitack crew is briefed at the municipal airport near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Helicopter crews fighting a massive wildfire in the area were grounded much of Wednesday because of high winds. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

A helitack crew is briefed at the municipal airport near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Helicopter crews fighting a massive wildfire in the area were grounded much of Wednesday because of high winds. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A helitack crew is briefed at the municipal airport near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Helicopter crews fighting a massive wildfire in the area were grounded much of Wednesday because of high winds. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A fire warning sign is pictured in Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides, Tuesday, May 3, 2030, charring more than 217 square miles over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

A fire warning sign is pictured in Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides, Tuesday, May 3, 2030, charring more than 217 square miles over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A fire warning sign is pictured in Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides, Tuesday, May 3, 2030, charring more than 217 square miles over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Spot fires burn near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Spot fires burn near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Spot fires burn near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A firefighting plane drops water over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

A firefighting plane drops water over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A firefighting plane drops water over a plume of smoke near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. The fire has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

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A CL-415 enhanced aerial firefighter, better known as a Super Scooper, makes numerous bombing runs to drop water on the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire burning near Luna Community College southwest of Las Vegas, N.M., Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Credit: Eddie Moore

A CL-415 enhanced aerial firefighter, better known as a Super Scooper, makes numerous bombing runs to drop water on the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire burning near Luna Community College southwest of Las Vegas, N.M., Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Credit: Eddie Moore

caption arrowCaption
A CL-415 enhanced aerial firefighter, better known as a Super Scooper, makes numerous bombing runs to drop water on the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire burning near Luna Community College southwest of Las Vegas, N.M., Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

Credit: Eddie Moore

Credit: Eddie Moore

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Leonard Padilla and 5-year-old Ivan Padilla watch a wildfire burning near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Leonard Padilla and 5-year-old Ivan Padilla watch a wildfire burning near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Leonard Padilla and 5-year-old Ivan Padilla watch a wildfire burning near Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Flames raced across more of New Mexico's pine-covered mountainsides Tuesday, charring more than 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A burned golf cart is seen in an RV park following a wildfire near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames are marching across more of New Mexico's tinder-dry mountainsides, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state's psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to keep new wildfires from growing. The big blaze burning near the community of Las Vegas has charred more than 217 square miles. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Credit: Cedar Attanasio

A burned golf cart is seen in an RV park following a wildfire near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames are marching across more of New Mexico's tinder-dry mountainsides, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state's psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to keep new wildfires from growing. The big blaze burning near the community of Las Vegas has charred more than 217 square miles. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Credit: Cedar Attanasio

caption arrowCaption
A burned golf cart is seen in an RV park following a wildfire near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames are marching across more of New Mexico's tinder-dry mountainsides, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state's psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to keep new wildfires from growing. The big blaze burning near the community of Las Vegas has charred more than 217 square miles. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Credit: Cedar Attanasio

Credit: Cedar Attanasio

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A group of firefighters from Apple Valley, Calif., eat breakfast outside the historic Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Firefighters from all over the country have converged on the small community to battle a wildfire that has burned 250 square miles (647 square kilometers). (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

A group of firefighters from Apple Valley, Calif., eat breakfast outside the historic Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Firefighters from all over the country have converged on the small community to battle a wildfire that has burned 250 square miles (647 square kilometers). (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
A group of firefighters from Apple Valley, Calif., eat breakfast outside the historic Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Firefighters from all over the country have converged on the small community to battle a wildfire that has burned 250 square miles (647 square kilometers). (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Smoke and dust sweep across a field near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. A fire in the area has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Smoke and dust sweep across a field near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. A fire in the area has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

caption arrowCaption
Smoke and dust sweep across a field near Las Vegas, N.M., on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. A fire in the area has torched 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) over the last several weeks. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

Credit: Thomas Peipert

Credit: Thomas Peipert