by Cedar Atanasio and Kathleen Ronne
LAS VEGAS, NM ( Associated Press) — Dangerous, strong winds were expected to continue in northeastern New Mexico Monday, complicating the fight against wildfires that threaten thousands of homes in mountainous rural communities.
The largest city in the area – Las Vegas, New Mexico, home to 13,000 people – was largely safe from danger because firefighters mostly extinguished the fire by moving east. But the north and south of the wildfire proved difficult, with wind gusts above 50 mph (80 kph).
“It’s been a challenging day. The winds are up; they haven’t given up,” fire spokesman Todd Abel said Sunday night.
A so-called “red flag warning” that indicates a high fire danger due to heat, low humidity and strong winds will remain in place for about four days starting Monday night.
More than 1,600 firefighters were on Sunday battling two major blazes burning northeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Together they covered 275 square miles (about 710 square kilometers), an area more than twice the size of Philadelphia. By Sunday night, firefighters had brought about half of the fire under control.
Still, the National Interagency Fire Center said early Sunday that more than 20,000 structures were at risk from the fire, which has destroyed nearly 300 homes in the past two weeks.
Strong winds are in many ways the worst nightmare for firefighters, especially in hot and dry conditions, as those crews have been battling in the southwest since early April.
In addition to fanning and spreading the flames, these winds keep air tankers and light aircraft on the ground. This allowed them to not pour water directly onto the fire or lay the retardant ahead of their path to allow the bulldozers and ground crew to dig firebrakes in places where there were no highways or roads to help stop progress. Is.
In extreme conditions, like in New Mexico, even helicopters that can usually rise into the air — at least during the early morning hours before the winds rise in the afternoon — are grounded. This prevents them from gathering intelligence about the events of the night. The planes were able to take off in the early hours of Sunday but were grounded by noon.
“It is not good, obviously; it removes one tool in our toolbox, but we are not stopping,” said Fire spokesman Ryan Berlin.
Officials were concerned about winds that had sparked more flames on the northern side of the fire near some very small communities of several hundred people. Incident commander Dave Belles said the gusts had set fire to a canyon, making it difficult to reach.
He and other officials urged people to be prepared to evacuate or leave immediately if asked to do so. If a fire breaks out in a community, heavy smoke and congested roads can make it difficult for people to flee and firefighters to reach the area, he said.
“It’s so thick you can’t see, you can’t drive, you can’t see the engine ahead of you,” Belles said.
Those cities sit along a state highway that runs from Las Vegas, New Mexico to Taos, a popular destination for skiing and other outdoor recreation. Although there was no threat to Taos, people in parts of larger Taos County have been told to be prepared for a possible evacuation.
In the small community of Las Vegas, some residents began returning on Saturday and some local businesses reopened. Control lines set up by bulldozers as well as wind direction helped keep the community safe over the weekend. But some fire officials warned people to be aware of evacuation orders as conditions could change quickly.
“Just because the winds are coming from one direction doesn’t mean they can’t change direction, so it’s better to be prepared and let residents go,” said Wendy Mason of the New Mexico Forestry Division.
Nationwide, close to 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the last time so many fires were reported at this point in 2018. And predictions for the rest of the spring don’t bode well for the West, where prolonged droughts and warmer temperatures due to climate change have worsened wildfire risk.
Ronayne reported from Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press reporter Scott Soner contributed from Reno, Nevada.