On Saturday and the next few days, weather conditions in New Mexico were described as potentially historic, with hundreds of firefighters as well as a fleet of planes and helicopters working feverishly to strengthen lines around the largest U.S. fire.
Many families have already been left homeless, and thousands of residents have been evacuated because of the flames that scorched large areas of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
Residents on the outskirts of the shifting fire front expressed hope that all the work done in recent days to clear the bushes, install sprinklers, lay hoses and use bulldozers to clean the lines would not allow the fire to reach the small town of Las Vegas and other villages.
“There is uncertainty and fear as to how the winds will affect the fire on a day-to-day basis,” said Elma Baca, chair of the Las Vegas Joint Foundation. “Once people are evacuated from the area, they can’t come back, so they’re just worried.”
Over the past few weeks, the fire has covered more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers).
The start of the fire is partly related to a preventive fire initiated by the U.S. Forest Service in early April to reduce flammable vegetation. The fire broke out of control, merging with another fire of unknown origin.
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 across the country, 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.
Last month, fires in forest areas in southern New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado also began, forcing evacuations and destroying homes.
Incident Commander Dave Bales said firefighters working in northeastern New Mexico have focused on protecting homes and other structures that preserve the sacred memories of generations.
“It’s hard when I see that so many people have been relocated,” he said, noting that there are many hugs in the city.
Previously, crews had seen extreme winds that usually lasted a day or even two. But Bales said the event could last five or more days with gusts of up to 50 to 60 miles per hour (80 to 96 kilometers per hour). He also warned that the flames could spread for miles.
“This is an unprecedented extraordinary wind event,” Bales said.
Another major forest fire in New Mexico was 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation’s key facilities for nuclear research and future production of plutonium components for nuclear weapons.
Brigades burned vegetation in front of the fire to reduce its intensity and the possibility of spot fires. The lab houses tankers, helicopters and heavy equipment, and firefighters will patrol the perimeter as the flames approach.
Some nuclear groups and environmentalists have expressed concern about nuclear waste containers on site. This includes six batches of 109 containers awaiting transportation to the federal government’s underground waste repository, state officials said.
Lab officials said Friday that radiological and other potentially hazardous materials are stored in containers designed and tested to withstand extreme conditions, including heat from the fire.
Mantua Brian reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Felicia Fanseca of Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to the report.
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