Strong, swirling winds complicate New Mexico wildfire fight

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Strong, fast-moving winds complicated the work of firefighters in northeastern New Mexico on Sunday as they battled two major blazes, although the rural area’s main population center finally appears to be safe from the worst hazard.

“It was a difficult day. The winds picked up; they didn’t let go,” fire department spokesman Todd Abel said Sunday night.

The largest city in the rural area – Las Vegas, New Mexico, population 13,000 – lies to the east of the fire zone and appears safe for now thanks to fire lines dug in with bulldozers and other preparations over the past week. But the northern and southern edges of the blaze were still proving difficult for firefighters to contain, especially given winds as fast as 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour), Abel said.

The fire’s perimeter extended more than 60 miles from Las Vegas, New Mexico on the southeast flank to near Holbrook, about 50 miles south of the Colorado line. The National Interagency Fire Center said early Sunday that more than 20,000 structures remained at risk from the blaze, which has destroyed about 300 residences over the past two weeks. The fire station said full lockdown was not expected until the end of July.

The fierce winds were expected to continue with a short break Sunday evening and at least through Monday. Strong, gusty winds are in many ways firefighters’ worst nightmare, especially in such hot and dry conditions that Southwest crews have been battling since early April.

In addition to fanning and spreading the flames, these winds land tankers and light aircraft that can drop water directly onto the fire or lay a retarder in front of its path to allow bulldozers and ground crews digging firebreaks in places where there are no highways or roads can help stop the spread of the flames.

In extreme conditions, like those in New Mexico, even helicopters that can usually soar into the air – at least for the early morning hours before the winds start picking up in the afternoon – are nailed to the ground. This means they are unable to gather intelligence on nighttime developments essential to developing new attack plans or placing new orders for firefighters, engines and other aircraft from across the region where demand increases exponentially as summer approaches and the start of the more traditional fire season.

The planes were able to fly early Sunday but were grounded by early afternoon, Abel said.

“It’s not good, obviously; it takes a tool out of our toolbox, but we’re not stopping,” fire department spokesman Ryan Berlin said.

Firefighters prepared to protect homes if needed in several other rural communities along the state highway that connects Las Vegas to Taos, a small community popular for outdoor recreation activities like skiing. Officials have repeatedly urged people to evacuate if told to do so.

“It’s a dogfight, guys,” fire department spokesman Bill Morse said Sunday night.

By Sunday morning, the largest fire northeast of Santa Fe had spread to an area more than twice the size of Philadelphia. Thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes.

For now, the city of Las Vegas appears to be safe, Berlin said. Some residents of the area were able to return to their homes on Saturday, and some businesses and restaurants have reopened.

“We have even already started to repopulate part of the city,” he said. “Our concern right now is the southwestern part of the fire that the wind is helping us, in a way, because it blows the flames back into the fire.” But Wendy Mason of the New Mexico Forestry Division warned that “in no way means ‘is someone ‘out of potential danger’.” “Just because the winds are coming from one direction doesn’t mean they can’t change direction, so it’s better to be prepared and have residents ready to go,” she said.

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time such a fire was reported at this point, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And the forecast for the rest of the spring does not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have combined to heighten the threat of wildfires.

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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