LAS VEGAS, New Mexico (AP) – A dangerous gust of wind is expected to continue Monday in northeastern New Mexico, complicating the fight against forest fires that threaten thousands of homes in mountainous rural areas.
The region’s largest city – Las Vegas, New Mexico, home to 13,000 people – was largely insured against danger after firefighters largely stopped a fire moving east. But the northern and southern flanks of the forest fire proved harder to contain as wind gusts reached 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour).
“It was a difficult day. The winds rose; they don’t sink, ”Fire Department spokesman Todd Abel said Sunday night.
The so-called “red flag warning”, which indicates a high fire hazard due to heat, low humidity and fast wind, will be in effect until Monday night, almost four days after it started.
More than 1,600 firefighters came out on Sunday to fight two major fires that were burning northeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Together, they covered 275 square miles (approximately 710 square kilometers), more than twice the size of Philadelphia. Firefighters put out nearly half of the fires Sunday night.
However, the threat was far from over: the National Interagency Fire Center said Sunday that more than 20,000 buildings remain at risk from a fire that has destroyed about 300 homes in the past two weeks.
Fast winds are by far the worst nightmare for firefighters, especially in conditions as hot and dry as the ones crews have been battling in the southwest since early April.
In addition to inflating and spreading flames, these winds keep air tankers and light aircraft on the ground. This prevented them from dumping water directly on the fire or imposing a retarder in front of its path to allow bulldozers and ground crews to dig fire cracks in places where there are no highways or roads to stop the progression.
In extreme conditions, such as New Mexico, even helicopters that can normally take off into the air – at least in the morning before the wind starts to pick up in the afternoon – end up on the ground. This prevents them from gathering intelligence on overnight events. The planes were able to take off on Sunday early in the day, but were stopped in the afternoon.
“It’s not good, obviously; it takes away the tool in our toolkit, but we don’t stop, ”said firefighter Ryan Berlin.
Officials were concerned about winds that raised even more flames on the northern edge of the fire near some very small communities of several hundred people. The gusts threw fire into the canyon, making it difficult to reach, said Dave Bales, commander of the incident.
He and other officials urged people to be ready to evacuate or to leave immediately if told. If the fire engulfed the community, heavy smoke and congested roads could make it difficult for people to escape and access the area, he said.
“It’s so thick you can’t see, you can’t drive, you can’t see the engine in front of you,” Bales said.
These cities are located along the state highway that runs from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Taos, a popular place for skiing and other outdoor activities. However, Taos was not threatened, but people in some parts of the larger district of Taos were ordered to prepare for a possible evacuation.
In a small Las Vegas community, some residents began returning on Saturday, and some local businesses reopened. Containment lines set up by bulldozers as well as wind direction helped keep society safe over the weekend. But some firefighters have warned people to be aware of evacuation orders because conditions could change quickly.
“Just because the winds are coming from one direction doesn’t mean they can’t change direction, so it’s best to be prepared and have residents ready to go out,” said Wendy Mason of the New Mexico Forestry Division.
Nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have been burned across the country this year, with 2018 being the last time so many fires have been reported, according to the National Interdepartmental Fire Center. And forecasts for the rest of the spring do not promise the West anything good, where long-term drought and rising temperatures caused by climate change exacerbate the threat of forest fires.
Raine reported from Sacramento, California. Associated Press reporter Scott Soner contributed from Reno, Nevada.
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