Thousands of firefighters battled destructive wildfires in the Southwest as more residents prepared to evacuate Friday into the weekend in northern New Mexico, where high winds and dangerously dry conditions have made flames difficult to control. contain.
The largest fire in the US grew to more than 303 square kilometers (117 square miles) during the afternoon northeast of Santa Fe. Gusty winds prevented any air strikes by mid-morning and crews lost some containment. that they had established in previous days.
The rapid rate of fire spread exceeded dire predictions in some areas, Incident Commander Carl Schwope said Friday night.
“We are in a very dangerous situation. Evacuation statuses are changing as we speak,” he warned at a briefing in Las Vegas, New Mexico, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Santa Fe.
More air and ground forces were on the way, he said, to strengthen the nearly 1,000 firefighters on the fire lines there and winds gusting up to 65 mph were starting to die down as nightfall approached.
There were no immediate reports of any new structures being lost since the local sheriff confirmed late Thursday that at least 166 homes were destroyed in rural San Miguel County in northeastern New Mexico.
But erratic wind swings in some of the driest conditions the region has seen in years were forecast again on Saturday, and authorities were making preparations to evacuate some residents as far north as Taos.
“Just to get people out of the way, that’s been the mission today,” Sheriff Chris Lopez said at the briefing in Las Vegas. Some of the most active fires were headed in that city, but he said the city itself was not in immediate danger.
Fire lines were reinforced outside the rural New Mexico community of Ledoux in an effort to save structures, and they appeared to be holding.
More than 2,000 firefighters were battling fires in Arizona and New Mexico on Friday, about half of those in northeastern New Mexico, where a total of more than 187 square miles (484 square kilometers) of wood and brush have been charred, mostly .
Red flag warnings for extreme fire danger were in effect Friday for nearly all of New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The fires are burning unusually hot and fast for this time of year, especially in the Southwest, where experts said some of the wood in the region is drier than kiln-dried lumber.
“We still have fire weather to get through tonight, tomorrow and several days after,” fire behavior specialist Stewart Turner said at Friday night’s briefing in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
“It’s very important that everyone heed evacuation orders because this is a very, very serious fire, very dangerous fire behavior.”
Matthew Probst, Las Vegas-based medical director of the El Centro Family Health network of health clinics, said the nearby fire has ripped through impoverished communities already worn down by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Here, you are losing precarious housing, but that’s all. It’s all they had,” said Probst, the county’s health services coordinator for wildfire evacuees.
Rural families in the area were caught off guard after returning home from an early evacuation, only to be ambushed by a fast-moving fire last week.
A 79-year-old widow from the small community of Sapello left her home and a blue-heeled cattle herder for a doctor’s appointment, with boxes packed for a possible evacuation with jewelry and photos from her 1964 wedding. they got up and the police said it was too late to come back for anything.
“They said, ‘No, ma’am, it’s too dangerous,'” Sonya Berg said in a phone interview Friday from an emergency shelter at a nearby high school.
A close friend says the house burned down, but Berg doesn’t want to believe it. A neighbor rescued the dog.
“I’m in denial until I go see him,” said Berg, whose husband passed away in 2019 and was buried outside the home. “He’s up there, he’s been through the whole thing. I hope the tombstone we put up is still there.”
In the Jemez Mountains east of Los Alamos, another wildfire covering 30 square kilometers (12 square miles) swept toward Bandelier National Monument, which closed its hiking trails as a precaution while core visitor areas remained. open.
In northern Arizona, authorities are on the verge of fully containing a 30-square-mile (77-square-kilometer) fire that has destroyed at least 30 homes near Flagstaff and forced hundreds to evacuate. A high-level national management team returned it to the local forest on Friday.
“It’s pretty stable for the most part,” Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Randi Shaffer said. “We are not seeing any crazy forecast weather patterns. We have fire crews monitoring, all of our suppression efforts have been sustained.”
Some residents near another fire 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott have not been allowed to return home. Firefighters have contained about a third of the 14-square-mile (37-square-kilometer) perimeter of the fire. Lighter winds were expected over the weekend, but low humidity will be a concern, fire officials said.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno, Nevada. Attanasio reported from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a staff 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 hidden topics.