Many homes near America’s largest wildfire survived the latest barrage of howling winds and erratic flames, but New Mexico’s governor said Tuesday the risk remains high and she expects long-term costs of recovering from the massive blaze to soar.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a briefing that northern New Mexico was in the best position that could be expected given the high potential for losses and the extreme challenges faced by firefighters.
Crews worked to shepherd the flames around homes that make up numerous small villages on the northern and southern ends of the fire by bulldozing lines, putting up sprinklers, clearing trees and raking pine needles. A force of nearly 1,800 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the blaze, including elite hot shots and several special strike teams.
The cost of fighting the blaze has topped $50 million. While that’s expected to grow with wind predicted through Wednesday, the governor said the cost to reconstruct homes, prevent post-fire flooding and restore the blackened forest once the flames are out will likely stretch into the billions of dollars.
“When you think about rebuilding communities, it is not an overnight process,” Lujan Grisham said. “So we should be thinking in terms of significant resources and those resources in my view should largely be borne by the federal government given the situation.”
The nearly 320-square-mile (830-square-kilometer) wildfire has burned some 300 structures, including homes, since it started last month. Some areas remain under evacuation orders, but authorities on Monday started letting some residents on the eastern flank return home.
A federal disaster already has been declared due to the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire set in early April that escaped containment. The flames merged with a separate fire a couple of weeks later, and as of Tuesday the jagged perimeter stretched more than 356 miles (573 kilometers).
The governor said anyone who didn’t believe the federal government shouldn’t accept significant liability would be in for a fight.
“It’s negligent to consider a prescribed burn in the windy season in a state that is under an extreme drought warning,” she said.
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation and others have called for an investigation. While forest officials have yet to release planning documents related to the prescribed fire, they have said forecasted weather conditions were within parameters for the project.
Meanwhile, another blaze burning in New Mexico had prompted officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the nearby town to prepare for evacuations as a precaution.
Nearly 900 people were fighting that fire, with the price tag nearing $16 million on Tuesday.
The northeast portion of the fire slowed as it ran into greener vegetation that contained more moisture. Fuel also became sparse as it moved through the footprint of a 2011 blaze, resulting in much different fire behavior than the large blaze burning in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Wind and low humidity levels continue to be big threats around the West as the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for extreme fire danger in much of New Mexico and parts of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Forecasters said New Mexico is outpacing most other recent years for the number of red flag days in April and so far this month.
Crews also were battling smaller fires elsewhere in New Mexico and Arizona.