LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Firefighters slowed the advance of the largest wildfire in the U.S. as heavy winds relented Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to remote stretches of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez announced the presidential disaster declaration during an evening briefing by the U.S. Forest Service about efforts to contain the sprawling wildfire in northeastern New Mexico, which has fanned out across 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.
“It will help us do that rebuilding and it will help us with the expenses and the hardship that people are facing right now,” the congresswoman said. “We’re glad it happened this quickly.”
Fire bosses said they are seizing upon an interlude of relatively calm and cool weather to keep the fire from pushing any closer to the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas and other villages scattered along the fire’s shifting fronts. Airplanes and helicopters dropped slurries of red fire retardant from the sky, as ground crews cleared timber and brush to starve the fire along crucial fronts.
Bulldozers for days have been scraping fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, population 13,000, while crews have been conducting burns to clear adjacent vegetation. Aircraft dropped more fire retardant as a second line of defense along a ridge just west of town in preparation for intense winds expected over the weekend.
An estimated 15,500 homes in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border Las Vegas have been affected by mandatory evacuations. The tally of homes destroyed by the fire stands around 170.
The president’s disaster declaration releases emergency funds to recovery efforts in three counties in northeastern New Mexico where fires still rage, as well as portions of southern New Mexico where wind-driven blazes killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes in mid-April.
The aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for individuals and businesses, a statement from the White House said.
Local law enforcement officials acknowledged the physical and emotion toll of prolonged evacuations. Las Vegas Police Chief Antonio Salazar said his officers would provide “burglary patrols” of evacuated areas and help maintain order at a local Walmart as people line up to purchase supplies.
“Repopulation, that’s one thing we’re very interested in,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said. “Everybody wants to get back home.”
Dan Pearson, a fire behavior specialist with the federal government, said weather forecasters are anticipating two days of relatively light winds before the return of strong spring gales.
“Our prayers are working because we’ve had advantageous winds throughout the fire area today,” he said. “We’ll take advantage of this fact over the next few days. … What we can do is build resilient pockets.”
The fire was contained across just 20% of its perimeter. Its flames on Wednesday were about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from Las Vegas, where schools were closed as residents braced for possible evacuation.
Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory were warily tracking another wildfire that crept Wednesday within about 5 miles (8 kilometers) of facilities at the U.S. national defense laboratory based in Los Alamos.
Fire crews worked to widen a road that stands between the fire and Los Alamos while clearing out underbrush and treating the area with fire retardant.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West — moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Fire officials also point to overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen wildfire conditions.
Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that a dozen uncontained large fires have burned about 436 square miles (1,129 square kilometers) in five states.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.
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Boston firefighters pull hurt worker from collapsed building
BOSTON — Firefighters in Boston worked for more than three hours to rescue an injured construction worker after part of a historic power plant collapsed Wednesday while being redeveloped.
Fire Commissioner Jack Dempsey told reporters the worker sustained life-threatening injuries when a wall collapsed and landed on his legs and lower body.
Two other workers were quickly removed from the former Edison Power Plant in South Boston and taken to an area hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, he said. The collapse occurred at around 1:45 p.m.
Wednesday’s incident was the second collapse at a Boston construction site this year. A construction worker died in March when a part of a parking garage being demolished collapsed.
Mayor Michelle Wu credited first responders for executing a “very dangerous rescue operation,” saying it was a “near-miracle” that the worker was pulled to safely.
“For my part, I’m angry that we’re here again at another work site with another major incident,” the Democrat added, according to WCVB-TV.
The plant, which is over 120 years old, is being redeveloped into a mixed-use property that includes residential, office, research and retail space, a hotel, and open public space, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also investigating, a spokesperson said.
Suffolk Construction, the company responsible for the deconstruction, said a catwalk had collapsed at the building, which is more than 120 years old. “We are currently on site working closely with OSHA, our subcontractor and the local authorities to determine the cause of this incident and confirm the safety of the site,” the company said in a statement.
Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which is developing the site, thanked first responders for their quick actions.
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Tornado rips through Kansas, causes severe damage
WICHITA, Kan. — A tornado that barreled through parts of Kansas destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and buildings, injured several people and left more than 15,000 people without power, officials said Saturday.
More than 1,000 buildings were affected when a strong twister swept through Andover on Friday evening, according to authorities. In the daylight Saturday, emergency crews found a more widespread path of destruction than was earlier estimated.
“We now know that our damage path extended approximately 3 1/2 to four miles to the north of where we believed it to have ended last night,” Andover Deputy Fire Chief Mike Roosevelt said at a briefing.
There were no fatalities or critical injuries despite the widespread destruction. Officials said only a few injuries had been reported. In Sedgwick County, three people were injured, including one woman who sustained serious injuries.
Search and rescue operations continued Saturday with more than 200 emergency responders from 30 agencies. Officials kept volunteers away from the damage until a secondary search of debris is done.
Andover Fire Chief Chad Russell said earlier that some neighborhood homes “were completely blown away.”
There are homes knocked completely off their foundations and entire neighborhoods wiped out, Russell said.
City Hall, the Andover YMCA and Prairie Creek Elementary School were among buildings heavily damaged.
Field crews from the National Weather Service worked Saturday to determine the extent and strength of the twister, said meteorologist Kevin Darmofal at the Wichita office.
Flor and Aldo Delgado said they prayed in the basement of their Andover home as a tornado passed right above them, destroying their home and cars.
The couple looked out of the window Friday night and saw the tornado beginning to form, so they headed to the basement.
“The lights started flickering and eventually went out, and within a minute from that the whole house started shaking and it was so loud. We started feeling water hitting our faces, and there was just dust everywhere. It lasted for what felt like a minute that it was right above us,” Aldo Delgado said.
Flor Delgado said she could hear their home being torn apart as they prayed for their safety, the Wichita Eagle reported.
“In the moment I realized there is absolutely nothing we could do. I knew my husband felt it too because he was calm and comforting me, but at one point he just starts losing it and crying. I could hear his voice cracking as he’s praying,” she said.
Once the tornado passed, the couple made it out of the debris with only the clothes on their backs. Their home, cars and personal items are gone.
“We didn’t even have our wedding rings on at the time,” Flor Delgado added.
Gov. Laura Kelly declared a State of Disaster Emergency for the hardest hit areas. The declaration makes state resources available to help local jurisdictions with response and recovery efforts in areas impacted statewide.
Evergy said about 15,000 customers lost power during the tornado and that work continued to restore electricity. Any broken gas and water lines were shut off and by noon there were no known active leaks.
In addition to the tornadoes, large hail was reported in several towns across the Plains. Hail the size of softballs was spotted near Holbrook, Nebraska, and Enterprise, Kansas, according to the National Weather Service and storm spotters.
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Queens fire destroys at least one restaurant, spreads to 2 other businesses
WOODSIDE, Queens — A fast-moving fire destroyed at least one business before spreading to two others in Queens overnight Sunday.
The fire started in the basement of a Texas Chicken and Pizza restaurant located at 64-01 Broadway in Woodside, just after midnight and triggered a second alarm several minutes later.
The fire destroyed the store and spread to two other attached businesses including a barbershop and wine and liquor store.
“I was just walking down the street and I saw the fire, then I got scared and called 911,” a witness said.
It appeared that the building also housed several residential apartments above the businesses and people were forced out of their homes.
It’s not clear how many people lived there.
People at a nearby lounge described what happened.
“We were in the lounge and we heard a big noise,” one man said. “It was a fire truck and everything and we came out and saw the place burning. This is a very busy intersection and a lot of traffic comes here because of the businesses around here so this will have a huge impact.”
There were three minor injuries reported.
Over 100 firefighters worked to put out the fire, which was placed under control around 1:40 a.m.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
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