Updated May 4, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Biden approves disaster declaration for New Mexico's raging wildfires

Smoke from wildfires in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Satellite imagery of smoke from wildfires in Las Vegas, N.M., on Tuesday. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

President Biden on Wednesday approved a disaster declaration for New Mexico, which has been hit by a series of wildfires that have raged for weeks, razing hundreds of structures and causing thousands of people to evacuate.

Why it matters: The declaration orders federal aid to be made available for recovery efforts, per a White House statement — as six large wildfires burn across the northern and southwestern parts of the drought-ravaged state, driven by gusty, exceptionally dry conditions and low humidity.

By the numbers: Some 15,000 properties were under mandatory evacuation orders, including a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and at least 170 homes have been destroyed, officials say.

The big picture: The biggest of the early season blazes is the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in Santa Fe in northern New Mexico, which has burned more than 160,000 acres and was 20% contained, according to the latest data from Inciweb, the interagency website that tracks wildfires.

  • Biden's declaration, following a request Tuesday from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), makes federal funding available to affected residents in the fire-ravaged counties of Colfax, Mora, San Miguel, and Valencia.
  • It also helps in evacuation assistance and shelter support in those counties, as well as Lincoln County — where a fire last month killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes in the mountain resort town of Ruidoso, per Reuters.

Threat level: New Mexico, like much of the U.S. West and Southwest, is in the middle of a long-term, intense drought.

  • Amid this backdrop, "critical" fire weather conditions were set to continue in parts New Mexico, Arizona and western Texas through Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

Context: Factors including human-caused climate change are causing a significant increase in the occurrence of large wildfires across the region, per Axios' Andrew Freedman.

What they're saying: "I have families who don’t know what the next day looks like," Lujan Grisham said at a news conference announcing the federal request.

  • "I have families who are trying to navigate their children and health care resources, figure out their livelihoods and they’re in every single little community and it must feel to them like they are out there on their own," Lujan Grisham added.

Worth noting: The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak began on April 6 after a prescribed burn escaped containment before later merging.

  • Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that agencies "need new rules about prescribed burns."
  • "This isn’t our first situation where the federal government put us in harm’s way," she said.

What to watch: Much of New Mexico and portions of Arizona and western Texas was facing "warm temperatures, extremely low humidity, and gusty winds, increasing the potential for wildfires" through early Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with details of Biden's fire declaration approval, the latest on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak and the weather forecast. The headline has also been updated to reflect this.

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