At one point, the ferocious Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire
was spreading at 50 miles per hour, said Travis Regensberg, a general contractor brought in by New Mexico to help protect homes and buildings.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Regensberg told CNN on Thursday. “It’s been really tough for us. I’ve been on this 17 days straight — three, four hours of sleep a night to protect the communities here.”
The firefighters have been protecting buildings by creating perimeter rings around them and using bulldozers to cut fire lines, he said. Additionally, they try to minimize harm to septic and well systems so that people have “a place to come back to,” Regensberg said.
High winds have been firefighters’ biggest challenge.
“This fire is a sleeping beast. I mean, I call it the devil,” he added.
The monster wildfire is a combination of two blazes raging about 12 miles northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Collectively, the blazes have scorched more than 166,000 acres as of late Thursday, with 20% containment, according to the interagency reporting website Inciweb
It’s grown into the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history, according to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
. Dozens of homes have been destroyed and as many as 15,000 more are in danger, officials warned.
“I’m 71 years old. I’ve never seen it this bad, this big — I mean this was huge,” resident Barbara Kuehl told CNN.
Barbara Kuehl and her husband David Kuehl lost electricity in their home in Holman, located north of the fire-engulfed areas, but they are grateful that their house has been spared, she said.
The sky is blue where she lives, Kuehl said, but she’s thinking of those who aren’t so lucky.
“I’m just praying for people that are in danger, or houses or structures,” she said. “Friends of ours have lost everything, nearly everything. … It’s really sad.”
Crews are battling five other wildfires in the state, according to
the National Interagency Fire Center. So far this year, about 300,000 acres have been scorched in New Mexico — more than was burned in the previous two years combined, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
President Joe Biden declared a major disaster
in New Mexico in response to the wildfire devastation, which allows the state to access critical federal aid.
Crews brace for windy weekend
The winds eased Thursday and are expected to be calmer Friday, allowing for some progress in fighting the blaze, incident commander Dave Bales told CNN.
“The fire is actually laying down today (Thursday),” Bales said.
But officials are warning that wind will pick up again this weekend — making firefighting even more challenging.
“Crews have made good progress holding & constructing fire lines & structure protection around the fire ahead of strong winds expected this weekend,” Grisham said in a tweet.
Gary Zell, a US Forest Service incident meteorologist, warned that clouds and smoke combined with low humidity and wind direction will contribute to “extreme burning conditions” during the weekend through Tuesday of next week.
Earlier, the area had been experiencing severe fire weather, prompting 24 red flag events in the 30 days, Bales added. Red flag alerts are issued when weather conditions are critical for wildfires to either spark or expand even larger.
Nearly 30 towns across San Miguel and Mora counties are under a full evacuation notice due to the wildfire.
“This is a long-term event, and we do not anticipate having ‘control’ of this fire any time soon,” according to a statement from both counties.