Warnings of critical fire conditions covered much of the southwestern United States on Saturday as crews in northern New Mexico worked to halt the growth of the nation’s largest active wildfire.
The 7-week blaze, the largest in New Mexico history, has burned 491 square miles (1,272 square kilometers) of forest in rugged terrain east of Santa Fe since it began in April with two planned burns.
Crews patrolled partially burned areas and cleared and cut containment lines, including the main ones near the blaze, while bulldozers scraped relief lines further away.
The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings of critical fire conditions for parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. ‘Utah. These conditions are a combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and dry vegetation.
The return of drier, warmer weather with stronger winds posed a threat of increased fire activity over Memorial Day weekend, prompting officials to urge the public to stay safe vehicle chains and watch out for possible ignition sources.
“The last thing we need right now is another ignition,” said Operations Section Chief Jayson Coil.
Forecasts called for wind gusts of up to 80 km/h, with critical fire conditions continuing through Monday, followed by more favorable weather conditions later in the coming week, said Bruno Rodriguez, meteorologist at the fire management team.
Strong winds could fan the flames and blow containment lines and push the fire forward, said fire operations manager John Chest.
“Imagine you’re traveling in your car and the fire can overtake you. That’s the kind of extreme fire behavior we’re talking about,” Chester said.
Nearly 3,000 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to the fire, which was contained to approximately 48% of its perimeter.
Early estimates say the fire destroyed at least 330 homes, but state officials expect the number of homes and other structures that have burned to reach more than 1,000 as more other assessments are made.
Davenport reported from Phoenix.