By Andrew Hay
PLACITA, N.M. (Reuters) – Raking up dead grass and bulldozing a 20-mile-long fuel break, locals and fire crews in New Mexico on Wednesday fought to stop the devastating march northward of the largest active U.S. wildfire.
Under the plume of a blaze that has torched up to 1,500 properties, Christine Gonzalez piled weeds in her wheelbarrow to stop “spot fires” should embers land around her mountain home in Placita, about 40 miles northeast of Santa Fe.
“Climate change is very real here,” said Gonzalez, 61, a retired budget manager from Los Alamos National Laboratory, as smoke rose thousands of feet above nearby Jicarita Peak.
In forests eight miles north, crews worked to clear a 300-foot-wide fire break along a ridge system by Saturday to protect Taos and Angel Fire should other firefighting actions fail. The blaze was around 15 miles from the two resort towns.
“We need to anticipate a bad outcome, we need to anticipate fire growth will mimic some of what we’ve seen over the last several weeks,” operations chief Jayson Coil told a briefing.
Driven by relentless winds, the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon fire has burned over 301,971 acres (122,203 hectares), an area approaching the size of Los Angeles.
Lower snowpacks and higher temperatures have trapped northern New Mexico in a 25-year drought, creating conditions for the largest fire in its recorded history, which shows no sign of stopping.
Possibly hardest hit is Mora County where Undersheriff Americk Padilla refers to the blaze as “the beast” after it destroyed trailer homes of low-income families as well as ancestral forests and watersheds.
In immediate threat Wednesday was the Sipapu ski area 15 miles south of Taos where employees wrapped silver foil around structures to protect them from fire and used snowmaking equipment to wet down forest.
Seven miles west in Rodarte, the Cordova family used diggers to create a fire break around their family home.
“We’re going to say as long as we can fight it,” said Diane Cordova, apologizing that did she did not have time to talk.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Leslie Adler)