The long, hard slog of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire continued Friday, with officials girding for what could be an even longer siege.
The 38-day fire continued to march toward 300,000 acres of scorched New Mexico earth, and its size and complexity are prompting Forest Service officials to alter how they will deploy their forces to battle the blaze.
With more than 1,900 people already on the ground, the U.S. Forest Service announced Friday it would split the fire zones in half, with a Type 1 team from California arriving to begin efforts farther north than the blaze’s current boundaries. At the same time, fire strategists are working to devise ways to contain the fire’s stubborn western flank, which faces into the Pecos Wilderness.
The U.S. Forest Service said the fire is at more than 270,000 acres and continues to push north into Taos County near the village of Angostura and threatening the Mora County village of Chacon. But the concerns aren’t just in the north: Officials began pivoting firefighters to the Pecos Wilderness area, as the fire moved toward Lone Pine Mesa, Blue Bell Ridge and near Enchantment Lake.
Another trouble spot: Barillas Peak in the southwestern section of the fire.
The latest changes prompted Angel Fire Resorts to push back its summer opening a week, with plans to open for the season May 27.
Containment is at 29 percent, but if there was good news in Friday’s effort, it was in the relative lack of winds that allowed both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to get into the fight.
Their presence, coupled with teams on the ground, allowed for a more effective attack, said officials, who happily showed off videos of air drops and choppers hovering over small ponds to obtain more water.
“We had scoopers, we had helicopters, we had all kinds of aviation flying today, which is good because we haven’t had that opportunity in a long time,” said Todd Abel, an operations section chief on the fire.
Abel explained aircraft alone don’t quell a fire; the planes need to work in coordination with firefighters on the ground to make any significant headway.
“If we just dropped retardant, it’d just dry up, and fire would eat right through it,” he said in a briefing from Las Vegas, N.M.
Fire officials cautioned the blaze would continue to grow, both in Taos County and toward Black Lake south of Angel Fire. But they were hopeful the ability to have tools that had been grounded for a big chunk of the past windswept week would begin to help.
Incident commander Dave Bales said part of the firefighting effort would be based in Taos to handle the northern side of the fire.
“That’s just a large landscape on the ground,” Bales said Friday. “Moving folks from north to south, it’s a logistical challenge to support those folks — feed them, taking care of them … [it’s] really a challenge to manage that landscape.”
Bales said the nexus of the firefighting effort is moving north as areas around Las Vegas become more manageable. He said teams already were in Black Lake and near Angel Fire as the fire continues to grind its way toward those areas.
Though winds were lighter on Friday, operations section chief Todd Abel said conditions were primed for what he called a “plume-dominated fire” — billowing clouds of smoke that can be seen for many miles.
“That’s a challenge for our firefighters,” he said, noting that such fires can prove dangerous for those on the ground in all directions.
The picture looks better on the southern end of the fire, where lines near Mineral Hill and San Geronimo appear to have stabilized, officials said.
Meanwhile, state Environment Department officials announced they were providing drinking water for customers who are served by water systems that are under a precautionary advisory.
In San Miguel County, people needing free and safe drinking water can go to Mike Mateo Sena Elementary School, 12 County Road A-1, Sapello, from 9-11 a.m.
In Mora County, water will be provided at the Mora County Courthouse Parking Lot, 1 Court House Dr., in Mora, from 1-3 p.m.
The Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains southwest of Los Alamos was at 45,394 acres and was 19 percent contained early Friday. The news was good enough that Los Alamos Public Schools announced it would return to in-person learning Monday.
But fire behavior analyst Robert Burnside said there remained some troublesome areas in the fire — both on the northeast and southwest areas.
Of particular interest is the southwest side of the fire, where crews cannot rely on help from the Las Conchas burn scar, and the weather remains dry with no relief in sight.
“The opportunity is still out there … our probability of ignition is 100 percent,” he said in a briefing Friday. “Any spots we get, if they land in a receptive fuel bed, that is going to start a new fire. That is gonna start to grow.”