As high winds stoked wildfire like a powerful bellows, driving flames past tiny Gallinas and toward Hot Springs and nearby Montezuma, the possibility of disaster loomed for a couple of hundred students at United World College.
Images shared on social media Friday night showed smoke billowing behind the historic Montezuma Castle on campus.
Built in 1886, the 90,000-square-foot former hotel, located near popular hot springs, remained intact Saturday. The outlook for the castle — the third hotel constructed at the site after two others burned earlier in the 1880s — appeared optimistic.
But the risks were rapidly changing throughout the day as the fire crept farther south toward Las Vegas, NM, and more days of high winds were in the forecast.
There was other good news in the aftermath of the Friday windstorm, one of several that has caused the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon complex fire to spread more than 97,000 acres — possibly over 100,000 — since April 19, when winds kicked up and blew a prescribed fire out of control northwest of Las Vegas.
A second blaze ignited nearby a few days later, and the wildfires eventually merged, leading law enforcement to evacuate thousands of homes, sometimes late at night, and displaced residents to face days of uncertainty about what they would find when they returned to their abandoned properties .
Monica Aragon, who lives in Ledoux — a community a few miles south of Mora that firefighters had raced to protect overnight Friday — said her home was still standing Saturday.
“I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the enormity of this fire — Las Vegas to Mora. It’s incredible to think about,” she said.
Perhaps voicing the thoughts of tens of thousands of people in San Miguel and Mora counties who have fled their homes in recent days, Aragon added, “The hardest thing is not knowing.”
Among those forced to evacuate were United World College’s high school juniors and seniors, who are from cities across the nation and around the globe. They were housed overnight at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, where they were in good spirits Saturday, UWC spokesman Carl-Martin Nelson said. The school was planning to move them to alternate housing in Glorieta over the weekend.
The evacuation had become a “slumber party,” for the kids, he said, while teachers tried to keep them focused on their studies.
“We’ve been preparing for the possibility that we might have to evacuate,” Nelson said, “… and so we don’t want to see the students get too far away from their work.”
The fire has gotten closer to the school than expected, I added.
Nation’s largest active fire
Crews battling the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire took advantage of calmer winds Saturday to get grounded aircraft flying again — dropping water and retardant to cool the intense heat and taking infrared video of hot spots — in efforts to protect Las Vegas, Hot Springs and the Storrie Lake area before a “three-day wind event” expected to start Sunday.
Jayson Coil, an operations section chief for the incident management team overseeing the blaze, said in a Saturday morning briefing crews had worked through the night in driving winds to extinguish spot fires, hold black flames from threatened communities and protect homes still standing within its perimeter .
“We were watching the fire march about a mile every hour,” said a visibly weary Coil.
He described a “column collapse” that pushed the wildfire past containment lines to the south. The phenomenon occurs when charred and smoldering debris goes airborne and then begins falling from the sky, lighting new fires.
The fire grew more than 22,000 acres between Friday afternoon and early Saturday and is now the largest active fire in the nation, according to the Associated Press.
About 1,020 personnel are working to contain it, prioritizing residential areas.
A growing list of communities were in “Go” status, meaning residents must evacuate, while others, including neighborhoods adjacent to Las Vegas, were advised to prepare for evacuation. The Santa Fe National Forest posted an updated evacuation map Saturday afternoon, urging residents to immediately leave their homes if their neighborhood was on the list.
“This emerging situation remains extremely serious and refusal to evacuate could be a fatal decision,” the post warned.
Coil said the fire had not yet entered Hot Springs, a community near the southeastern edge of the fire that was evacuated Friday. Mineral Hill, another threatened community, had not burned, he added, and fire lines were holding around Rocciada.
In the fire’s northwest area, flames spread late Friday past containment lines and raced toward Ledoux. “That was a heck of a fight last night” and was mostly successful, Coil said.
There were some areas near Ledoux where fire “slopped across the road,” he said in a later briefing, and thick smoke above the community kept pilots from flying there Saturday.
To the east, he said, crews faced “a heck of wind test” to keep the fire from spreading across NM 518, while flames in a southwestern wilderness area were allowed to burn uncontained as resources were shifted elsewhere.
Coil, whose incident management team was preparing to hand the battle to a new team Sunday, commended crews’ “exceptional job” overnight Friday, saying they often would “disengage when there was a threat to their life and then reengage” in efforts to hold back the wildfire.
There were “a lot of saves,” he said.
Saturday’s fight, he noted, was to keep the fire from continuing its move southward. He pointed on a map to bulldozer lines aimed to contain it.
Officials have been unable to assess the extent of the damage from the fire’s recent spread, though San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez noted in an evening briefing more structures have been destroyed. In previous days, officials said the fire had burned more than 160 homes.
“It’s still burning too hot for anyone to get in there,” San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley said.
Mike Johnson, a spokesman for the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon incident management team, said the blaze has reached Gallinas and some other evacuated communities.
However, he said, “That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything within that is burned. … We had structure protection in place the last week or so.”
Aircraft were grounded Friday due to high winds, he said, but helicopters and airplanes assigned to the fire were back in the air Saturday.
Johnson offered a bit of good news: The water treatment plant in Hot Springs that serves the city of Las Vegas had not been affected by the fire.
The state Environment Department confirmed late Friday the city’s water remained safe to drink, and city officials said the plant has enough supply to last three days, even if the power goes out.
Meteorologist Gary Zell said in an afternoon briefing that likes Friday had reached 40-60 mph in some areas of the blaze. While winds were calmer Saturday, he said another red-flag warning will be in effect Sunday, and on Monday “the winds really don’t slack at all.”
I have forecast a third day of heavy likes Tuesday.
Cerro Pelado Fire grows
Friday’s winds also increased activity on the Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains near the Valles Caldera National Preserve, which more than doubled in size to 15,600 acres from a previously reported 7,245.
Mike Lindberry, a spokesman for the incident management team fighting the Cerro Pelado, said it spread to the east and southeast, with most of the growth in the burn scar of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. The blaze remained only 15 percent contained, but Linberry said crews were scouting for roads and ridges that could be used to set up fire lines.
The US Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday it was closing Cochiti Lake to all water recreation while the reservoir was being used as a water supply for aerial firefighting crews on the Cerro Pelado Fire.
Officials reported little growth of the nearly 56,000-acre Cooks Peak Fire, burning in Mora and Colfax counties. It had spread less than 300 hundred acres, despite Friday’s winds, said Dave Shell, a spokesman for the incident management team.
“That’s a success because yesterday was very hot, dry and windy,” Shell said. “On a scale of one to five, yesterday was probably like a six — super dry, strong wind — but our fire lines all held. So we’re very happy and everybody’s safe.”
Some of Saturday’s efforts on the fire were stalled, however, by the discovery of a drone intrusion, officials said. They urged drone operators to keep flights out of the area to prevent an aircraft strike that could be fatal.
In other areas of the state, crews were fighting smaller blazes that sparked Thursday and Friday.
The Water Fire, which ignited Thursday in the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico, was estimated at 765 acres Saturday.
Another new fire was detected late Friday in Union County, officials reported Saturday. The Skiles 429 Fire, a few miles west of the Oklahoma border, had burned 2,500 acres on state and private land.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism