Wind-whipped fire forces more New Mexico residents to flee

West

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Wind-whipped flames raced Monday across more of New Mexico’s tinder-dry mountainsides, after forcing more residents to flee their homes while firefighting crews elsewhere in the drought-parched state tried to prevent new wildfires from growing.

The blaze burning near the community of Las Vegas in northeastern New Mexico is the biggest wildfire currently in the U.S. and has charred more than 188 square miles. Fire officials said they expect it to keep growing.

“Winds are changing constantly and those, combined with low humidity and high temperatures keep the fire spreading at dangerous speeds and in different directions,” fire officials warned in an overnight update about the fire. “Over the next two weeks, the majority of our days are listed as red flag days, with high winds, which will continue to make suppression efforts difficult.”

The fire has been fanned by an extended period of hot, dry and windy conditions and ballooned in size Sunday, prompting authorities to issue new evacuation orders for parts of Las Vegas, population about 13,000, the small town of Mora and other villages.

Officials have said the fire has damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures. It merged last week with another blaze that was sparked in early April when a prescribed fire set by firefighters to clear brush and small trees that can serve as fire fuel escaped containment. The cause of the other fire is still under investigation.

Another Las Vegas New Mexico wildfire — located ten miles from Hermits Peak —has scorched more than 120,000 acres of and forced thousands from their homes.

As of Monday, the fire was less than 30% contained.

Nearly 3,000 wildland firefighters are battling blazes around the U.S., with about one-third of those assigned to the largest fire burning in New Mexico.

The blazes are among many this spring that forced panicked residents to make life-or-death, fight-or-flee snap decisions as wildfire season heats up in the U.S. West. Years of hotter and drier weather have the exacerbated blazes, leading them to frequently burn larger areas and for longer periods compared with previous decades.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall, scientists 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.

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