Bulldozers, aircraft used to fight fire near New Mexico City 2022-04-30 14:20:08

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Quieter weather conditions in northern New Mexico are helping more than 1,000 firefighters battle the nation’s largest active wildfire.

SANTA FE, NM – More than 1,000 firefighters backed by bulldozers and aircraft faced the largest active wildfire in the United States on Saturday after strong winds pushed it across some containment lines and closer to a small town in northern New Mexico.

Initial nighttime map images indicated that the fires that burned at least 166 homes grew from 103 square miles (266 square kilometers) on Friday to 152 square miles (393 square kilometers) by early Saturday, officials said.

Ash, which was carrying 7 miles (11 kilometers) through the air, fell in Las Vegas, a city of about 13,000, and firefighters were trying to prevent the blaze from approaching, said Mike Johnson, a spokesman for the fire department.

Calm winds on Saturday were aiding firefighting efforts after storms accelerated the progress of the fire to a point Friday when “we were watching the fire march about one mile every hour,” said Jason Coyle, fire operations officer.

Winds blew up to 65 mph (105 kph) on Friday before receding as dark approached. By Saturday, planes unloading fire retardants and water can resume flights to assist ground crews and dredgers.

Coyle said the rapid growth of the fire on Friday forced crews to change positions frequently due to threatening conditions, but they were able to immediately re-engage without having to retreat. There were no reports of injuries.

“Kind of a nod to everyone out there who made good decisions on the spot with limited information in a chaotic environment with an immediate personal threat,” Coyle said. “They did an excellent job.”

Winds first sent flames surging forward on April 22 across the northern New Mexico landscape. Since then, crews have worked to limit structural damage by installing sprinklers, pumps and hoses and removing vegetation around the buildings, officials said.

With that work and five times the number of firefighters now working on the blaze, they were in a much better position than the previous week and were on track to make “tremendous progress,” incident management team leader Karl Schop said Friday.

The fire on Saturday was contained about a third of its larger circumference, down slightly from Thursday. The blaze began on April 6 when firefighters announced that the blaze that the firefighters lit to remove young trees and twigs that could fuel the fires was out of control. Then those flames merged with another wildfire a week ago.

With the recent growth of the fire, estimates of people forced to evacuate largely rural areas as well as a subdivision near Las Vegas have doubled from 1,500 to 2,000 people to between 3,000 and 4,000 people, Jesus Romero, an assistant district manager for San Miguel, said.

Officials said the fire destroyed 277 buildings, including at least 166 homes. Romero said no updated damage assessments were available on Saturday.

Wildfires were still burning Saturday elsewhere in New Mexico and Arizona. Fires burn unusually hot and fast for this time of year, especially in the southwest, where experts said some wood in the area is drier than kiln-dried wood.

A scientist said wildfires are becoming a year-round threat in the West due to changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rains that come later in the fall. The problems have been compounded by decades of fire suppression and mismanagement along with more than 20 years of massive drought that studies have linked to human-caused climate change.

In northern Arizona, firefighters came close to containing a 30-square-mile (77-square-kilometre) fire that destroyed at least 30 homes near Flagstaff and forced hundreds to evacuate. A high-level national forest fire management team returned oversight of firefighting to local firefighting forces on Friday.

National Forests across Arizona have announced that they will impose fire restrictions starting next Thursday, limiting campfires to developed recreation sites and restricting smoking inside vehicles and other indoor and recreation sites.

“Given the current drought conditions and the ‘very high’ level of fire risk, these activities are very risky,” said Taiga Rohrer, Tonto National Forest Fire Department Officer.

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Davenport reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writer Felicia Fonica in Flagstaff and Scott Soner in Reno, Nevada contributed to this report.

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