A fast-moving wildfire has burned at least 600 acres in northern New Mexico, prompting the evacuation of as many as 200 people and led the governor to activate the state emergency operations center. The flames were spreading quickly through an area of the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos along New Mexico Highway 4. A towering plume of smoke could be seen from miles away. Santa Fe National Forest spokeswoman Julie Ann Overton yesterday said the fire was about 32 kilometers away from Los Alamos and burn scars from previous fires in the area may keep it from hitting the city.
About 100 firefighters along with three heavy air tankers, six engines and a helicopter were trying to prevent the flames from reaching about 300 structures that could possibly be at risk. Gov Susana Martinez activated the state emergency operations center to help with a coordinated response to the fire.
“New Mexicans know better than most just how devastating wildfires can be, and as we face this year’s fire season together, we’re also reminding everyone to keep safety in mind and be prepared,” Martinez said in a statement. The fire was burning near the boundary between the Santa Fe National Forest and Valles Caldera National Preserve, officials said.
A stretch of Highway 4 was closed as deputies worked to evacuate residents from some subdivisions. On the western border, roadblocks were set up not far from a grocery store in the village of La Cueva, where some evacuees stopped for supplies before moving on. Miles to the east in Los Alamos, officials said they were prepared to help residents but no evacuation centers had been established.
At Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation’s top nuclear research centers, lab fire managers were monitoring the situation but noted that the flames were far from the lab. The Jemez Mountains are dotted with pockets of homes and summer cabins and at the heart of the mountain range is the 362.6-sq kilometer national preserve. Valles Caldera is home to vast grasslands, the remnants of one of North America’s few super volcanoes and one of New Mexico’s most famous elk herds. It’s also held sacred by Native Americans.
Rangers said visitors were evacuated from the preserve earlier yesterday and that the fire was on the other of South Mountain, west of the visitors’ center. Sandoval County authorities initially reported that the fire was a controlled burn that got out of control, but forest officials said that wasn’t the case since no prescribed fires were being conducted by federal or state agencies.
Overton said the cause of the fire was unknown and under investigation. The blaze was first reported about 10:45 AM yesterday. Several other fires are burning around New Mexico, but most are in more remote areas. A smoke advisory for parts of northern New Mexico will remain in effect at least through today.