Damage estimates climb from massive New Mexico wildfire

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The destruction caused by the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. has been devastating for thousands of residents and their lives have been forever disrupted and altered, New Mexico’s governor said Tuesday after touring the damage in one county.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham met with homeowners and local officials while surveying homes in two of the many small northern New Mexico villages that were overcome by flames during the past several weeks after two planned government operations meant to clear out overgrown areas of the forest went awry.

The first-term Democrat is preparing for a visit Saturday with President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to make a quick stop in New Mexico to be briefed on the wildfires and the recovery efforts.

The largest blaze has charred close to 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which sits at the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Much criticism has been levied by residents throughout the rural area because of the federal government’s role in causing the fire.

The governor’s office confirmed Tuesday that several hundred homes are estimated to have been destroyed by the fire. That number will likely increase as inspections and documentation is ongoing.

“I saw firsthand the irrevocable harm that has been caused, with historic homes and livelihoods lost to the flames,” the governor said in a statement following her tour. “But I was also reminded of New Mexicans’ resiliency — I saw neighbors helping neighbors with that same compassion that New Mexicans always show toward one another in tough times.”

The governor also heard about where recovery aid has been helpful and where gaps remain.

Lujan Grisham and other top elected officials have called for the federal government to cover 100% of recovery costs. Some also have asked for an independent investigation of the U.S. Forest Service’s prescribed fire protocols even though the agency has put a hold on such operations pending its own inquiry.

While New Mexico has felt the brunt of the fire season so far this year, much of the West has marked notably hot, dry and windy conditions. Predictions for the rest of the season do not bode well, with drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change worsen fire danger in overgrown forests around the region.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that thousands of wildland firefighters were working toward containment of eight large fires that have burned more than 1,130 square miles (2,927 square kilometers). Five of those fires are in New Mexico, while Alaska, Arizona and Colorado each have one.

In Alaska, crews were working to protect several structures from a fire burning west of Talkeetna.

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