More evacuations expected near dangerous Southwest wildfires

SANTA FE, NM – Thousands of firefighters battled destructive wildfires in the Southwest as more residents prepared to evacuate Friday into the weekend in northern New Mexico where strong winds and conditions dangerously dry conditions made the fires difficult to contain.

The largest fire in the United States reached more than 117 square miles (303 square kilometers) in the afternoon northeast of Santa Fe. Gusty winds prevented any air attack by mid-morning and crews lost some of the containment they had established the previous days.

The rapid rate of spread of the fire exceeded dire predictions in some areas, Incident Commander Carl Schwope said Friday night.

“We are in a very dangerous situation. Evacuation statuses are changing as we speak,” he warned during a briefing in Las Vegas, New Mexico, about 80 miles east of Santa Fe.

Other air and ground forces were on their way, he said, to fortify the roughly 1,000 firefighters on the fire lines there and the winds that were blowing up to 65 mph were beginning to subside at the nightfall is approaching.

There have been no immediate reports of new lost structures since the local sheriff confirmed late Thursday that at least 166 homes had been destroyed in rural San Miguel County in northeastern New Mexico.

But erratic wind shifts in some of the driest conditions the region has seen in years were forecast again on Saturday, and authorities were preparing to evacuate some residents as far north as Taos.

“Just getting people out of the way, that was the mission today,” Sheriff Chris Lopez said during the briefing in Las Vegas. Some of the most active fire was heading towards that town, but he said the town itself was not in immediate danger.

The lines of fire were reinforced outside the rural community of Ledoux in New Mexico in an effort to save structures, and they appeared to be holding.

More than 2,000 firefighters were battling blazes in Arizona and New Mexico on Friday — about half of those in northeastern New Mexico, where a total of more than 187 square miles (484 square kilometers) of woods and brushwood was charred.

Red flag warnings for extreme fire danger were in place Friday for nearly all of New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

The fires are burning unusually hot and fast for this time of year, especially in the southwest, where experts said some woods in the region are drier than kiln-dried wood.

“We still have fire weather to get through tonight, tomorrow and several days after,” fire behavior specialist Stewart Turner said during Friday night’s briefing in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“It is very important that everyone pays heed to the evacuation orders because this is a very, very serious fire – very dangerous fire behavior there. »

Matthew Probst, Las Vegas-based medical director for the El Centro Family Health network of health clinics, said the nearby fire swept through impoverished communities already frayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Here, you lose meager houses, but that’s all. That’s all they had,” said Probst, county health services coordinator for wildfire evacuees.

Rural families in the area have been caught off guard after returning home from an early evacuation – only to be ambushed by a fast-moving blaze last week.

A 79-year-old widow from the small community of Sapello left her home and a blue-heeled cattle dog for a doctor’s appointment, with boxes packed for possible evacuation along with jewelry and her 1964 wedding photos The winds picked up and police said it was too late to turn back for anything.

“They said, ‘No ma’am, it’s way too dangerous,'” Sonya Berg said in a phone interview Friday from an emergency shelter at a nearby college.

A close friend says the house burned down, but Berg doesn’t want to believe it. A neighbor rescued the dog.

“I’m in denial until I go see him,” said Berg, whose husband died in 2019 and was buried outside the home. “He’s up there, he’s been through it all. I hope the headstone we erected is still there.

In the Jemez Mountains east of Los Alamos, another 30-square-kilometer wildfire crept toward Bandelier National Monument, which closed its backcountry hiking trails by precaution while the central visiting areas remained open.

In northern Arizona, authorities are on the verge of bringing a 30 square mile (77 square kilometer) fire under full control that has destroyed at least 30 homes near Flagstaff and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. A high-level national management team returned it to the local forest on Friday.

“It’s pretty stable for the most part,” Coconino National Forest spokeswoman Randi Shaffer said. “We don’t see any crazy weather forecast. We have fire crews keeping watch, all of our suppression efforts have held. »

Some residents near another fire 16 kilometers south of Prescott have not been allowed to return home. Firefighters have about a third of the 14 square mile (37 square kilometer) fire perimeter contained. Lighter winds were expected this weekend, but low humidity will be a concern, firefighters said.

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Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno, Nevada. Attanasio reported from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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