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Tens of thousands have evacuated their New Mexico homes as massive wildfire grows

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In New Mexico, the largest wildfire in the U.S. continues to grow rapidly in the mountains east of Santa Fe. Nearly 2,000 firefighters are trying to stop the blaze from moving closer to mountain resort towns like Taos. Tens of thousands of people are under evacuation orders. From member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports many have questions about how this fire started.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The adventure camp at Glorieta, just outside Santa Fe, is usually full of kids biking in the mountains or swimming in the lake. Right now, though, its dining room is full of evacuees from the worst fire anyone here has ever seen.

RAY SANCHEZ: This is unimaginable. It is beyond belief. It's something that I've never seen before. It's basically a monster.

FORDHAM: Ray Sanchez is a teacher who reluctantly left his family home in Mora County, about a 90-minute drive north of here.

SANCHEZ: So our home is directly in the path. The wind is blowing it toward my house.

FORDHAM: Relentless winds have been pushing the fire through drought-stricken forests for weeks now. Sanchez's brother is a firefighter up in the mountains. He's told him about tunnels of fire like nothing he's ever seen.

SANCHEZ: Very terrifying - it was being driven by the winds, like 60 mile-an-hour winds.

FORDHAM: This fire is now known as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire after two fires combined. The cause of the Calf Canyon Fire is under investigation, but the Hermits Peak fire...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN ROMERO: Our prescribed burn from last Wednesday was the cause of the Hermits Peak Fire. With that said, we take full responsibility, and with a heavy heart, we are really sorry for what happened.

FORDHAM: That's Santa Fe National Forest ranger Steven Romero at an online meeting apologizing for letting a prescribed burn get out of control. They're supposed to be small, controlled fires that reduce vegetation to prevent big ones in future. Romero said that the weather had forecast favorable conditions, but high winds had blown up unexpectedly.

But Ray Sanchez, the evacuee, says high winds are very common in New Mexico and spring, and he wouldn't have had a fire in his own house then.

SANCHEZ: Simply because we don't want embers coming out of our chimney and lighting our neighbors' house on fire.

FORDHAM: And many people, whose homes and livelihoods are now at risk, are critical of the prescribed burn. Sophia Romero also evacuated Mora County with her children.

SOPHIA ROMERO: I am not totally against prescribed burns. Being in the forest my whole life, we do need to clean them out for these reasons.

FORDHAM: But she says it's always windy in April, and the forests are like tinder.

SOPHIA ROMERO: They know New Mexico weather, especially northern New Mexico weather. We had a very dry winter.

FORDHAM: So she's dismayed. She wants answers.

SOPHIA ROMERO: I want - we want to know why. Like, what made you decide that was OK?

FORDHAM: The Forest Service is conducting a review. New Mexican elected officials have also criticized the decision to burn. Forest management experts, like University of New Mexico professor Matthew Hurteau, say it would be a mistake to ban prescribed burns entirely.

MATTHEW HURTEAU: I'm confident it's an essential tool.

FORDHAM: He says since the beginning of the 1900s, forest management focused on fire suppression, which led to a buildup of flammable dead plant material.

HURTEAU: The idea is reintroducing a process in an ecologically appropriate manner to help restore the ecosystem. And fire serves a really important role in these forests.

FORDHAM: He worries political and popular anger about this burn could make managers too afraid to try to restore healthy fires.

HURTEAU: If any time that somebody makes a mistake or a prescribed fire gets away for any number of reasons, if we as society demand that heads roll for that, we're going to select for fire managers that do not light fires, and we are going to select for land management culture that avoids risk.

FORDHAM: He thinks in a changed climate, it is harder to burn safely, but that without prescribed burns, the risk from tinderbox forests will only grow.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Santa Fe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.