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New Mexico wildfire surpasses 200,000 acres as weather worsens

Residents in parts of three counties were told to prepare to evacuate as the massive blaze moved north.
Wildfire smoke and fire close to buildings in Las Vegas, N.M., on Saturday.Cedar Attanasio / AP

A massive wildfire in New Mexico surpassed 200,000 acres of burned brush Tuesday as high winds and warm temperatures stoked renewed growth and kept further containment at bay, officials said.

The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire, the second-largest blaze in the state's history behind the Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012, sent up ominous plumes of smoke Tuesday afternoon as it raged with renewed energy in the mountains and foothills east of Santa Fe.

On the fire's 35th day, the prognosis from federal fire officials was dark — the forecast offered little respite from high winds. Gusts reached 48 mph Tuesday, and all-out hot temperatures were forecast for the weekend.

"It was too windy to get our helicopters and our fixed-wing [aircraft] up," Todd Abel, a federal operations chief for Southwest fire incidents, said in a video update Tuesday evening.

As a result, the fire's containment stayed unmoved at 39 percent, with acreage growth canceling out any victories on the fire lines, Abel said.

The day's red flag warning was prescient, federal incident meteorologist Makoto Moore said during the update. "The weather's living up to the label," he said.

Gusty winds were forecast through Wednesday, after which calmer air would meet hot temperatures expected to reach the upper 90s by Saturday.

Officials issued warnings for parts of Taos, Colfax and San Miguel counties to remain on high alert and prepare for possible evacuation as the massive wildfire moved north parallel to the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains, known in the state as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The fires, once separate blazes, merged April 22. They are joined by a handful other active fires in New Mexico that, by early May, had burned nearly a quarter-million acres, almost double what would normally burn in the state in an entire year.

The Hermits Peak Fire started as a prescribed burn that escaped its boundaries on April 6. The cause of the Calf Canyon Fire is under investigation. Federal officials marked Tuesday as the 35th day of both fires by using April 6 as the starting date.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators and congressional representatives wrote a letter to the Biden administration pleading for promised pay raises, as well as increased benefits, for federal firefighters.

"As the 2022 fire season begins, we urge you to take necessary steps to avert critical staffing shortages in the wildland firefighting workforce," it said.

The letter called the lack of personnel "an urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars."