US: Firefighters in New Mexico race to contain massive wildfire

Since merging into one blaze a week ago, the Calf Canyon and Hermit's Peak fires have burned 97,064 acres as of Saturday morning -- a growth of over 30,000 acres in 24 hours, according to updates from state fire officials

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Sunday, May 01, 2022, 12:30 PM IST
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A vehicle heads away from a plume of smoke from the Cerro Pelado Fire burning in the Jemez Mountains on Friday, April 29, 2022 in Cochiti, New Mexico, US | AP

Over 1,000 firefighters backed by bulldozers and aircraft battled the largest active wildfire in the US, after strong winds had pushed it across some containment lines and closer to a small city in northern New Mexico.

Calmer winds on Saturday aided the firefighting effort after gusts accelerated the fire's advance to a point on Friday when "we were watching the fire march about a mile every hour", said Jayson Coil, a fire operations official.

Ash carried 11 km through the air had fallen on Las Vegas, population about 13,000, and firefighters were trying to prevent the fire from getting closer, said Mike Johnson, a spokesperson with the fire management team.

But fire managers warned of windy conditions expected in the coming days, as well as impacts from smoke, and officials urged residents to remain vigilant for further possible evacuation orders.

Stewart Turner, a fire behaviour analyst with the fire management team, warned Saturday of a "very serious week" ahead with the forecasted winds.

Since merging into one blaze a week ago, the Calf Canyon and Hermit's Peak fires have burned 97,064 acres as of Saturday morning -- a growth of over 30,000 acres in 24 hours, according to updates from state fire officials.

Several areas in the south are now in mandatory evacuation status amid the rapid fire growth. Officials in San Miguel and Mora counties warned that the "emerging situation remains extremely serious, and that failure to evacuate could be fatal.''

Crews battling the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire took advantage of calmer winds Saturday to get grounded aircraft flying again — dropping water and retardant to cool the intense heat and taking infrared video of hot spots — in efforts to protect Las Vegas, Hot Springs and the Storrie Lake area before a “three-day wind event” expected to start Sunday.

While the northern part of the state was expected to get a break from strong winds Saturday, more powerful winds were forecast to return Sunday along with "more critical fire weather conditions," the Albuquerque National Weather Service said.

More than 1,000 people were battling the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fires, and officials are investigating what may have started the flames.

A little further north, the Cooks Peak Fire, which started roughly two weeks ago, is still burning.

The blaze has scorched more than 56,000 acres and was 56% contained Saturday morning, according to the fire information website.

The fires are part of a series of devastating blazes that have torched parts of the state in recent weeks.

The state has seen wildfires burn more acres so far this year -- more than 173,000 -- than in seven of the last eight years, according to statistics from the Southwest Coordination Center.

And it could get worse. The peak of the fire season in New Mexico is not until June, with the months that usually have the highest number of fires being June, May, July and April, in that order.

In a warning posted Saturday, the National Weather Service said the smoke from the northern New Mexico fires was reducing air quality and urged people older than 65 with poor respiratory health to "monitor the visibility & minimize time outdoors."

The widespread, relentless drought continues to provide ample dry fuels for fires to spread, with little relief in sight for the foreseeable future for a large swath of the drought zones. More than two-thirds of New Mexico is now facing extreme drought conditions, while the exceptional drought area has more than doubled in size over the past week, encompassing more than 15% of the state.

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