Firefighters battling Tres Lagunas blazes racing against wind, humidity

PECOS — More than 900 firefighters were racing against increasing winds and dropping humidity levels Monday as they fought to contain two wildfires raging in the northern New Mexico mountains.

In the Santa Fe National Forest, the Tres Lagunas blaze had burned more than 12 1/2 square miles by midday Monday, and firefighters were working to protect a group of homes in the Holy Ghost Canyon and prevent the fire from spreading east where it could endanger a river watershed that supplies the city of Las Vegas.

Some 140 homes, mostly cabins and summer residences, have been evacuated since late last week and officials said the fire was too unpredictable to say when the evacuees would be allowed to go home.

To the west, the Thompson Ridge fire near Jemez Springs remained at nearly 3 square miles. And 40 to 50 homes remained evacuated as the crews battling that blaze faced similar weather condition.

Tres Lagunas incident commander John Pierson said firefighters had setup a sprinkler system to moisten the area around a group of summer homes in the Holy Ghost Canyon. They were also working on a fire line on the ridge above that canyon. Because the ridge is very steep, he said should the flames make a sudden leap down the canyon the only protection would be the sprinkler system connected to a nearby stream that has been dousing the area for about 48 hours.

Pierson said officials also were concerned that winds blowing from the south and southwest would move westerly with gusts up to 34 mph and blow embers to the east, potentially spreading the blaze to the watershed of the Gallinas River, a main source of drinking water for Las Vegas, a community with a population of more than 13,000. A severe fire in the heavily timbered watershed could increase the potential for damaging erosion when rains and runoff come later, increasing sediment in the river.

Should the fire go the other direction, it could impact the watershed that supplies the nearby state capital of Santa Fe.

"We believe at this time the watersheds are in good shape," Gov. Susana Martinez said at a midday briefing. "But it's day-to-day. Everything changes."

Officials said they would likely hold a community meeting in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

"If we would get a heavy contamination with ash, it could take a year to five years before we could clear that out," Las Vegas Mayor of Alfonso Ortiz Jr. said.

No structures had been burned in the Tres Lagunas blaze, which was just 5 percent contained Monday, but the fire on ridges above the canyon was within a mile of homes.

Both fires were sparked late last week by power lines.

As of Monday, officials said 65 percent of the land burned in the Tres Lagunas blaze was forest service land, 35 percent state land and 1 percent private.

About 600 firefighters were battling the blaze. On Sunday, with lower winds, they were able to dump 49,000 gallons of water on the fire.

Another 300 firefighters were in the Jemez, where one structure was partially damaged.

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