LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The fire burning about 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from Priscilla Crespin’s home was the first blaze that forced the 81-year-old to leave the small northeastern New Mexico community where she has spent nearly all her life.
Crespin left her home in Las Vegas, New Mexico, because smoke from the fire wasn’t good for her asthma, her children were growing concerned and other family members who live nearby were making plans to leave.
When her daughter showed up to take her to Albuquerque on Monday, fire crews were cutting down trees, raking pine needles and spraying water on properties in the area near her home. She grabbed clothes, photos and essential documents.
“It’s awful. It scares you,” Crespin said as she was being driven away from her hometown. “You don’t know when it’s going to get to the houses.”
Even though no evacuations were ordered in the town of 13,000, the blaze that has charred 217 square miles (562 square kilometers) in New Mexico’s pine-covered mountainsides had prompted some residents to flee the community. It also led to an evacuation of the state’s psychiatric hospital.
Fire crews battled on several fronts to keep the fire, the largest wildfire burning in the U.S., from pushing into more populated areas as it fed on the state’s drought-parched landscape. Authorities were encouraged by a forecast for Tuesday of improving humidity and shifting winds. Still the blaze is expected to keep growing, putting it on track to possibly be one of the largest and most destructive in the state’s recorded history.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West and they are moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. In the last five years, California for example has experienced the eight largest wildfires in state history, while Colorado saw a destructive blaze tear through suburban neighborhoods last December.
The fire in northeastern New Mexico ballooned in size Sunday, prompting authorities to issue new evacuation orders for the small town of Mora and other villages.
Residents in some outlying neighborhoods of the town of Las Vegas were told to be ready to leave their homes as smoke choked the economic hub for the farming and ranching families who have lived for generations in the rural region. No evacuations had been ordered within the city as of Monday evening.
Las Vegas is also home to New Mexico Highlands University and is one of the most populated stops along Interstate 25 before the Colorado state line.
Crews got a bit of a break Monday afternoon as the wind diminished and helicopters were able to make water drops in key locations. Still, flames running along the ridges above town could be seen from the discount store, an empty baseball field and other vantage points.
The county jail, the state’s psychiatric hospital and more than 200 students from the United World College have evacuated and businesses that remained open were having a hard time finding workers as more people were forced from their homes.
“We’re trying to house and feed people with skeleton crews. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. It’s an extraordinary tragedy,” said Allan Affeldt, a hotelier in Las Vegas. He said most of his staff were evacuated from their homes and he canceled guest reservations to accommodate firefighters and emergency crews.
The 197 patients at the Behavioral Health Institute were being sent to other facilities around the state, with some transported in secured units and others escorted by police.
Officials have said the northeastern New Mexico fire has damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures.
It merged last week with another blaze that was sparked in early April when a prescribed fire set by land managers to reduce fire danger escaped containment. The cause of the other fire remains under investigation.
Another New Mexico wildfire burning in the mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory also prompted more evacuations over the weekend and other communities were told to get ready to evacuate if conditions worsen. That blaze has reached the burn scars of wildfires that blackened the region a decade ago when New Mexico had one of its worst and most destructive seasons.
A wildfire in 2000 forced the closure of the laboratory and left about 400 people homeless. The community was threatened again in 2011 when another blaze caused by a downed power line blackened more of the surrounding forest.
In the southern New Mexico community of Ruidoso, two people were killed in a wildfire that destroyed more than 200 homes in April. That mountain community saw similar destruction from a 2012 fire.
And new wildfires were reported over the weekend — three in Texas, two in New Mexico and one each in Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 3,100 wildland firefighters and support personnel are fighting fires across the country, with about one-third of them trying to prevent the big blaze in New Mexico from spreading.
More than 4,400 square miles (11,400 square kilometers) have burned across the U.S. so far this year.