Wind is Wild Card in NM, AZ Fires

LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) -- Schoolchildren in a northern New Mexico community that had been threatened by a wildfire were expected to resume in-person classes Tuesday while residents on the fire's northern edges remained under evacuation orders.

The West Las Vegas School District said exceptions would be made for students still displaced by what's the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. or those whose health has been affected by the smoke.

Meanwhile, firefighters worked in rugged terrain ahead of the massive blaze trying to clear brush and stop the flames from burning more homes in the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The wildfire -- intensified by decades of drought, warmer temperatures and spring winds -- has charred 308 square miles (798 square kilometers) of tinder-dry ponderosa forests. Thousands of people have had to flee the flames and some 300 structures, including homes, have been destroyed.

Crews have spent days working to protect ranch homes scattered through the area and stamping out small fires that jumped ahead of the main blaze.

"So far they've had great luck in catching those," said fire information officer Joel Barnett.

Wind will continue to be a factor this week, along with low humidity, but to varying degrees depending on the day. Fire officials predicted part of the massive blaze would push north into rugged terrain that is difficult for firefighters to access.

"This isn't a surprise to us. All the models showed this probably was going to happen," said fire operations section chief Todd Abel.

The region's largest population center -- Las Vegas, New Mexico, home to 13,000 people -- remained largely safe from the flames. Some residents were allowed to return over the weekend.

Early Monday, West Las Vegas High School was empty but for a single instructor teaching remotely. Schools in the district pivoted to remote learning, something they had planned as a contingency in case of a rise in coronavirus cases.

"I've been preparing, not for wildfire, but for something like this," said mass media teacher Kenneth Bachicha.

Elsewhere in northern New Mexico, a wildfire near the federal government's key facilities for nuclear research prompted Los Alamos National Laboratory and others in the area to begin preparing for evacuations. Officials stressed that there was no immediate threat to the lab itself.

That fire has burned nearly 64 square miles (165 square kilometers).

Officials said some medically fragile residents and large animals already have been moved out of the area to lessen the traffic congestion should evacuations be ordered. They anticipated residents would have at least a day or two notice if they need to flee.

"If the fire gets its fifth gear, it will be here sooner than we want it to be," said incident commander Rich Harvey. "We're doing everything we can to check it."

Crews in Arizona were dealing with strong winds Monday as they battled a fire near the U.S.-Mexico border that forced several dozen people from their homes.