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National parkland closed as early-season fires burn in New Mexico, Colorado

NBC News logo NBC News 5/18/2022 Dennis Romero and Todd Miyazawa

As early-season wildfires burn in New Mexico and Colorado, federal officials said Tuesday that Santa Fe and Carson national forests would close effective Thursday.

The New Mexico parkland would be of-limits as a precaution as the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burns along the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, known in the state as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, federal fire incident spokesperson Renette Saba said.

The blaze was burning about 100 miles east-northeast of Santa Fe.

Parts of Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands were also expected to close Thursday as the Black Fire surges about 100 miles south-southwest of Albuquerque, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

Image: (Jim Weber / Santa Fe New Mexican via AP) © Jim Weber Image: (Jim Weber / Santa Fe New Mexican via AP)

On Monday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire the state's largest ever. Officials estimated it at more than 299,560 acres, state and federal officials said. It has surpassed the Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012.

The fire grew by nearly 100,000 acres, about half its size on May 10, in a week, and it is expected to surpass 300,000 acres soon, Saba said.

On Tuesday evening, the White House said that President Joe Biden and Grisham spoke about the devastation.

"Every effort will be made to provide immediate help to people in the impacted communities and support the state throughout its recovery," the White House said in a summary.

On May 4, Biden declared major disaster status for New Mexico, which connects fire victims to federal aid that can help cover the costs of temporary housing, repairs, and rebuilding.

Even with government cash available, recovery may have to wait.

State Forester Laura McCarthy said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, “I don’t want to give New Mexicans any false hopes that the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire will be contained any time soon.”

The Black Fire, which grew by an estimated 37,000 acres from Sunday to Monday, was scheduled to be placed under federal management as a major fire incident Wednesday, she said.

The blaze, which started May 13, has spread to more than 56,000 acres, federal officials said. Its cause was under investigation. Residents of the Lookout Mountain area were ordered to evacuate as a precaution.

Grisham said that as fire season gets an early start, New Mexicans should expect to be prepared for potential evacuations throughout the summer.

The Hermits Peak Fire started April 6 when a prescribed burn got out of control. It merged April 22 with the Calf Canyon Fire, which started three days earlier. The cause of that blaze was under investigation.

Federal officials estimated that a fourth of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire was surrounded Tuesday.

Nearly 300 structures, including 166 homes, have burned in San Miguel County, said county deputy manager Jesus Romero. The number of structures that have burned in other counties is unknown, said Saba, the incident spokesperson.

Residents of San Miguel, Mora, Taos and Colfax counties were told Tuesday to remain on high alert in case mandatory evacuations are ordered. An emotional support group for fire-stressed residents of the region was launched Monday; it is scheduled to meet weekly in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Nearly 2,100 firefighters and support staffers were assigned to the fire, officials said.

In Colorado, firefighters were grappling with the High Park Fire, which was measured Tuesday morning at more than 1,500 acres, with 37 percent containment, federal officials said.

The fire was about 45 miles west of Colorado Springs. Officials in Teller County said in a statement that the blaze has forced the evacuation of about 560 homes.

The National Interagency Fire Center said Tuesday that 400,000 acres have burned in 11 large active fires, predominantly in the Southwest. Its estimate of 1.3 million acres burned this year far surpasses a 10-year average of 753,855 acres burned by this time on the calendar, it said.

The center implicated the warmer, drier weather in the Southwest, but it also blamed people who inadvertently start wildland fires, often through carelessness.

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