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Biden approves funding for New Mexico wildfire victims

Closures on at least 12 state highways; thousands of people evacuated

Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire as seen from Gallinas, New Mexico, Apr. 29, 2022. (Photo: AmberRandumb/Twitter)

President Joe Biden on Wednesday approved a disaster declaration for New Mexico, which has been hit by a series of large wildfires since early April. These fires have damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and other structures, forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

Also, sections of at least 12 state highways are still closed due to the fires, especially in the Santa Fe and Las Vegas areas.

The federal declaration came in response to a request by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who signed a state emergency declaration on April 22.

“I have families who are trying to navigate their children and health care resources, figure out their livelihoods, and they’re in every single little community and it must feel to them like they are out there on their own,” Lujan Grisham said in a news conference Tuesday.

What it covers

The declaration makes federal aid available for recovery efforts, according a White House statement. As of Thursday morning, 10 large wildfires were burning in the lower 48 states. The National Interagency Fire Center said six of them were in New Mexico, fueled by major drought, extremely low humidity and gusty winds.

The president’s declaration makes federal funding available to affected people in Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties.

Among the assistance included are grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the impacts of the fires.

The big picture

The largest of the early season blazes is the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire near Las Vegas, in northern New Mexico. The Calf Canyon fire started April 6 as a result of spot fires from a controlled burn that escaped containment, followed by the Hermits Peak fire on April 19. The cause of the Hermits Peak fire is still under investigation. They merged into one fire later in the month.

Lujan Grisham added that agencies “need new rules about prescribed burns.”

So far, the combined fire has burned more than 166,000 acres and was 20% contained as of Thursday night, according to Inciweb.

Two other large fires are burning in northern New Mexico — the Cerro Pelado and Cooks Peak fires — and three large fires in southern New Mexico — the Bear Trap, Turkey and Water fires.

New Mexico’s Hermits Peak fire in SONAR Critical Events, 12 p.m., May 6, 2022.

High threat of more fires

New Mexico, like much of the West and Southwest, is in the middle of a long-term, serious drought.

Almost 80% of the state is in either an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the two worst categories assigned by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

There’s no rain in sight for the Southwest for at least the next seven days, with possible record highs Saturday in the 80s and 90s across New Mexico. The National Weather Service is also forecasting gusty winds exceeding 40 mph to return this weekend across the state. The winds will increase the risk of rollovers for truckers, as well as reduced visibility due to drifting smoke from the fires.

Major lanes of concern

  • Interstates 25 and 40 in New Mexico.
  • Interstate 10 from El Paso, Texas, to the New Mexico-Arizona border.
  • U.S. 550 from Silverton, Colorado, to the I-25 junction in New Mexico.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.