Aircraft battling wildfires in New Mexico grounded due to high winds


New Mexico
Burned underbrush can be seen across the road from United World College of the American West, a boarding school evacuated due to wildfires as seen outside Las Vegas, N.M., on Saturday, May 7, 2022. (CEDAR ATTANASIO/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On Saturday, airborne firefighters dropped water and retardants on a roaring wildfire in New Mexico, speeding their task until high afternoon winds halted the aerial effort.

In total, New Mexico was battling at least six wildfires, the biggest raging under the mountains and canyons immediately east of the state capital, Santa Fe, in temperatures that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham described as "the worst possible set of conditions for any fire."

According to officials, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon complex had burnt 172,284 acres as of Saturday, which is the equivalent of 269 square miles (697 square kilometers) or roughly 90 percent of New York City's land area, destroying at least 170 homes and causing 16,000 evacuations.

In what firefighters have termed a "historical fire weather event," sweltering temperatures and strong winds are predicted to continue for five days.

Dave Bales, the incident commander for the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire for the U.S. Forest Service, told reporters that helicopter and airplane pilots began fighting the blaze early Saturday morning and flew all morning until high winds grounded the fleet noon.

In a briefing, U.S. Forest Service Incident Commander Todd Abel stated, "They had to sit down due to the heavy turbulence and lack of visibility from the smoke."

"We had been flying them up until that point, but the safety of the aerial firefighters was compromised."

On Sunday, wind speeds were forecast to climb from Saturday's 30 mph with 60 mph gusts (48 to 96 kph). On Sunday, relative humidity is expected to drop from its current level of 35% to a bone-dry range of 6% to 16%, according to firefighters. They predicted "extreme burning conditions" till Tuesday.

Bales stated that sustained winds are tolerable, but varying speeds pose dangers to pilots and strong winds cause water and retardant drop to miss their mark.

KOAT-TV showed a helicopter plunging a vat tied to a rope into a lake while planes skirted billowing smoke to drop water and fire retardants on the flames.

Firefighters on the ground used hand tools and bulldozers to establish fire breaks while rotating in and out.

On Saturday, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire was 21% contained, but pockets of unburned timber remained behind the fire lines, indicating that it still had plenty of fuel, according to Bales.

The fire comprises two fires that started approximately two weeks apart and ultimately merged into one, the first of which was caused by an uncontrolled prescribed burn. The second incident's cause remains under investigation, according to officials.

At least five other fires broke out elsewhere in the state.

One of them, the 59,000-acre (238 square kilometers) Cooks Peak fire to the northeast of the main blaze, was 97% contained, allowing resources to be redirected elsewhere in the state, according to Lujan Grisham.

Publish : 2022-05-08 09:20:00

Give Your Comments