Strong winds complicate battle against New Mexico wildfires that threaten thousands of homes

LAS VEGAS, NM – Dangerous high winds are expected to continue Monday through northeastern New Mexico, complicating the fight against wildfires threatening thousands of homes in mountainous rural communities.

The region’s largest city — Las Vegas, New Mexico, home to 13,000 people — was largely out of danger after firefighters stopped a fire there from moving east. But the northern and southern sides of the bushfires turned out to be more difficult to contain, with winds exceeding 50 mph.

“It was a challenging day. The wind caught on,” said a fire spokesman, Todd Abel, on Sunday night.

A so-called “red flag warning” indicating a fire risk due to heat, low humidity and fast winds will remain in effect until Monday night, roughly four days after it began.

More than 1,600 firefighters came out on Sunday to battle two large fires burning northeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Together they covered 275 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Philadelphia. Firefighters managed to contain nearly half of the fires Sunday night.

However, the threat is far from over, with the National Interagency Center saying early Sunday that more than 20,000 buildings are still threatened by fire, which has destroyed about 300 homes over the past two weeks.

Fast winds are in many ways a firefighter’s worst nightmare, especially in hot, dry conditions like the ones firefighters have been fighting in the Southwest since early April.

In addition to fanning and spreading fires, these winds sustain air carriers and light aircraft. This left them unable to drop water directly onto the fire or place dampers in front of its path to allow bulldozers and ground crews to dig bulkheads where there were no highways or roads to help stop the advance.

In extreme conditions, like those in New Mexico, even helicopters that can usually get up in mid-air—at least during the early morning hours before the winds begin to rise in the afternoon—stop working. This prevents them from gathering intelligence on developments that occurred overnight. The planes managed to fly early on Sunday but stopped in the afternoon.

“It’s not good, obviously; it takes a tool in our toolbox, but we don’t stop,” firefighting spokesman Ryan Berlin said.

Officials were concerned about winds causing more flames on the northern edge of the flames, near some very small communities of several hundred people. Dave Bales, the incident leader, said Ghosts pushed the flames into the valley, making it difficult to reach.

He and other officials strongly urged people to prepare to evacuate or leave immediately if asked to do so. If a community were engulfed in flames, he said, the thick smoke and crowded roads could make it difficult for people to escape and for firefighters to reach the area.

“It’s so thick you can’t see it, you can’t drive, you can’t see the engine in front of you,” Bales said.

These cities lie along a state highway that runs from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Taos, and is a popular place for skiing and outdoor recreation. However, Taos was not threatened, but people in some parts of greater Taos County were asked to prepare for possible evacuations.

In the small Las Vegas community, some residents started returning on Saturday and some local businesses reopened. Containment lines created by the bulldozers as well as wind direction helped keep the community safe over the weekend. But some fire officials have warned people to stay informed of evacuation orders because conditions may change quickly.

“Just because the wind is coming from one direction doesn’t mean it can’t change direction, so you better be prepared and have residents ready to go,” said Wendy Mason of the New Mexico Department of Forestry.

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, and 2018 was the last time this many fires were reported at this point, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And forecasts for the rest of spring do not bode well for the West, where prolonged drought and warmer temperatures due to climate change have combined to exacerbate the risk of wildfires.

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Ronin reported from Sacramento, California. Associated Press reporter Scott Sonner contributed from Reno, Nevada.

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