By Aya Elamroussi and Paul Vercammen, CNN
Taming the second-largest wildfire in New Mexico history has been a nightmare for crews who have been battling the blaze for more than a month, a firefighter said.
At one point, the ferocious Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire was spreading at 50 miles per hour, said Travis Regensberg, a general contractor brought in by New Mexico to help protect homes and buildings.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Regensberg told CNN on Thursday. “It’s been really tough for us. I’ve been on this 17 days straight — three, four hours of sleep a night to protect the communities here.”
The firefighters have been protecting buildings by creating perimeter rings around them and using bulldozers to cut fire lines, he said. Additionally, they try to minimize harm to septic and well systems so that people have “a place to come back to,” Regensberg said.
High winds have been firefighters’ biggest challenge.
“This fire is a sleeping beast. I mean, I call it the devil,” he added.
The monster wildfire is a combination of two blazes raging about 12 miles northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Collectively, the blazes have scorched more than 168,000 acres as of Friday afternoon, with 20% containment, according to the interagency reporting website Inciweb.
It’s grown into the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history, according to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. About 170 homes have been destroyed and as many as 15,000 more are in danger, officials warned.
“I’m 71 years old. I’ve never seen it this bad, this big — I mean this was huge,” resident Barbara Kuehl told CNN.
Kuehl and her husband David Kuehl lost electricity in their home in Holman, located north of the fire-engulfed areas, but they are grateful that their house has been spared, she said.
The sky is blue where she lives, Kuehl said, but she’s thinking of those who aren’t so lucky.
“I’m just praying for people that are in danger, or houses or structures,” she said. “Friends of ours have lost everything, nearly everything. … It’s really sad.”
Crews are battling five other wildfires in the state, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far this year, about 300,000 acres have been scorched in New Mexico — more than was burned in the previous two years combined, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in New Mexico in response to the wildfire devastation, which allows the state to access critical federal aid.
Crews brace for windy weekend
Officials are warning that wind will pick up again this weekend — making firefighting even more challenging.
The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning which will go into effect Saturday morning and is projected to bring with it strong winds, low humidity, “above average warmth and a very unstable atmosphere.”
“This is the worst possible set of conditions for any fire,” Lujan Grisham said during a briefing Friday, adding the intense weather conditions could possibly last around “100 straight hours.”
The weather service said: “A dangerous and likely historic stretch of critical fire weather is on tap beginning Saturday and lasting each day at least to the middle of next week.”
The governor urged residents in mandatory evacuation zones to leave.
“We can’t promise there aren’t real dangers in leaving, but 100 hours of wind and extreme temperatures is extremely concerning, and I need as many people out of those evacuated areas as possible, safely,” she said.
She told residents who chose to stay there is no way authorities will be able to protect them in the way they want.
About 16,000 homes are under evacuation orders.
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CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn and Paradise Afshar contributed to this report.