Wildfires merge in New Mexico, threatening rural villages

Climate

Fire burns along a hillside in the Village of Ruidoso, N.M., on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Officials say a wildfire has burned about 150 structures, including homes, in the New Mexico town of Ruidoso. (Alexander Meditz via AP)

LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) — Maggie Mulligan said her dogs could sense the panic while she and her husband packed them up, agonized over having to leave horses behind and fled a fast-moving wildfire barreling toward their home in northeast New Mexico.

“We don’t know what’s next,” she said. “We don’t know if we can go back to the horses.”

Mulligan and her husband, Bill Gombas, 67, were among the anxious residents who hurriedly packed up and evacuated their homes Friday ahead of ominous Western wildfires fueled by tinder-dry conditions and ferocious winds.

Over a dozen sizable fires were burning in Arizona and New Mexico, destroying dozens of homes and as of Saturday burning more than 174 square miles (451 square kilometers).

New Mexico faces a long and potentially devastating wildfire season, Lujan Grisham said Saturday, as Southwestern wildfires cause destruction and force people from their homes.

Hundreds of structures were lost in a growing number of wind-driven blazes across drought-stricken New Mexico, Lujan Grisham said Saturday.

Over 20 active wildfires were burning in at least 16 of the state’s 33 counties, in the wake of winds that gusted up to 90 mph (145 kph) on Friday, Lujan said during a briefing streamed online. “So half the state has a fire issue.”

With so many fires burning in April, well before the normal May or June start of the wildfire season, “our risk season is incredibly and dangerously early,” Lujan Grisham said.

Wildfire has become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall, scientist have said. The problems have been exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor management along with a more than 20-year megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.

New Mexico as of Saturday had the most major wildfires burning of any state, though neighboring Arizona also had large fires that included one that burned 30 homes near Flagstaff on Tuesday.

Winds that howled Friday remained a concern on Saturday in northern New Mexico where two fires merged and quadrupled in size to a combined 66 square miles (171 square kilometers) in mountains and grassland northwest of Las Vegas.

The merged fires burned some structures but no figures were available, said fire information officer Mike Johnson. “They were able to save some structures and we know we lost other structures that we weren’t able to defend.”

Wind-blown clouds of dust and plumes of smoke obscured the skies near the fires, said Jesus Romero, assistant county manager for San Miguel County. “All the ugliness that spring in New Mexico brings — that’s what they’re dealing in.”

An estimated 500 homes in San Miguel were in rural areas of Mora and San Miguel counties covered by evacuation orders or warning notices, Romero said.

Elsewhere in the region, the fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest it had been in over a decade, according to the National Weather Service, because of unseasonable temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.

In Arizona, a Flagstaff-area fire burned 30 homes and numerous other buildings when the flames blew through rural neighborhoods Tuesday.

Resource Advisors from the Coconino National Forest record data in Division Alpha as they work to determine the severity of Tunnel Fires impact on the Forest, Thursday, April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz. The San Francisco Peaks in background show the effects of the 2010 Schultz Fire. (Tom Story/Northern Arizona Type 3 Incident Management Team, via AP)

A shift in wind had crews working Saturday to keep the fire from moving up mountain slopes or toward homes in rural neighborhoods near areas that burned Tuesday, fire information officer Dick Fleishman said. “It has got us a little concerned.”

In northern New Mexico, winds on Friday gusted up to 75 mph (120 kph), shrouding the Rio Grande Valley with dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north.

A wall of smoke stretched from wilderness just east of Santa Fe about 50 miles (80 km) to the northeast where ranchers and other rural inhabitants were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement.

Mulligan, 68, of Ledoux, a dog breeder, said her dog Liam “was a nervous wreck” when a sheriff came to their house Friday afternoon and told them they had to leave.

They packed nine dogs and five puppies into an SUV and an old blue Cadillac. They considered dropping the horses off at a local fairgrounds, but they decided it was in the same path of the burning fire as their home and more likely to burn.

“There’s water in their pasture, and there’s hay. So we’ll see what happens,” Mulligan said.

Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in the nearby Rociada area for five generations, got out Friday as winds kicked up. She said most people were taking the threat seriously.

“As a community, as a whole, everybody is just pulling together to support each other and just take care of the things we need to now. And then at that point, it’s in God’s hands,” she said as the wind howled miles away in the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where evacuees were gathering.

Areas ordered Saturday to evacuate because of another large fire still growing in northern New Mexico included Philmont Scout Ranch. Meanwhile, the nearby town of Cimarron remained on notice for possible evacuation, according to Colfax County officials.

The scout ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no scouts were on the property and staff were previously evacuated because of poor air quality.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.

Near the Flagstaff-area fire, Kelly Morgan was among neighbors at the edge of the evacuation zone who did not leave. She and her husband have lived through wildfires before, she said, and they are prepared if winds shift and flames race toward the home they moved into three years ago.

“Unfortunately, it’s not something new to us … but I hate seeing it when people are affected the way they are right now,” she said. “It’s sad. It’s a very sad time. But as a community, we’ve really come together.”

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