The thick plume of smoke rising up from the forested hillsides sent a tinge of panic through northern New Mexico. It was dry and windy — just like last year.
It was April 2022 that a record-setting wildfire sparked by the federal government had ripped across more than 530 square miles, destroying hundreds of homes and livelihoods along the way.
And now, firefighters were racing again to catch a new blaze.
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This one started Wednesday afternoon on private property near the burn scar left by last year’s historic wildfire and had grown to an estimated 1,000 acres by nightfall. Fire managers were hoping to get an updated estimate Thursday night.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Nervous residents posted photos on social media showing the plume of smoke, as seen from their front porches. Others choked back tears as they left the area in their vehicles, capturing photos and videos of trees along the roadside and homes in the distance engulfed in fire.
Many questioned how there was anything left to burn.
“People are still recovering from last year. A lot of these people who are getting evacuated right now were also evacuated last year, so it’s a very difficult time for them,” said Matthew Garcia, a fire information officer with the State Forestry Division.
Among them was Rita Childers, a retiree from Manuelitas. She spent the night in the community of Las Vegas about 15 miles away after being told to leave her home Wednesday as the fire grew.
Childers told the Albuquerque Journal that she spotted big plumes of black smoke while returning from a walk.
“At first I was like, ‘No, not again. I can’t believe this is happening,’” Childers said.
Crews on Thursday worked to keep the flames from reaching more homes while many of those who live in the small communities that are scattered throughout the mountains remained evacuated. Children were excused from school, roads in the area remained closed and neighboring communities opened temporary shelters.
“State, local and federal resources are responding and fire managers have implemented a full suppression strategy,” George Ducker, a spokesperson with the State Forestry Division, said in an update issued Thursday.
Forecasters called for another round of wind and red flag conditions through the evening.
Two elite firefighting crews were getting help Thursday from other hand crews, bulldozers, engines and a helicopter. Officials said more resources that could mount an attack from the air were on order.
Ducker said emergency responders were on the ground assessing damage and trying to tally how many homes and other structures had burned.
While above-average snowpack in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountain foothills have helped, forecasters say the region is still feeling the effects of a long-term drought — and that there were many pockets of unburned fuel left within the footprint of last year’s Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
That fire — the largest in New Mexico’s recorded history — started on national forest land when two prescribed burn operations went awry, fueled by relentless spring winds. Private landowners had far more acres burned, with the majority seeing moderate burn levels.
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While wildfires are a necessary part of many forest ecosystems, experts with the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute have said that the scale of damage from the 2022 fire will leave its mark on the area for decades.
It also has left an emotional mark on residents whose families have ties to this landscape going back generations. Many were praying Thursday that the flames could be corralled soon.
Higher humidity levels — and possibly some rain — predicted for the area Saturday would likely help, Garcia said.
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Nationally, the fire season is off to a slower start, with about one-third the number of acres burning compared to this same time last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.