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Strong, Swirling Winds Complicate New Mexico Wildfire Fight – WSVN 7News | Miami News, Weather, Sports

LAS VEGAS, NM (AP) — Fast winds fanned the flames of the wildfires burning in northeastern New Mexico on Sunday, grounding firefighters and making work harder for firefighters as they try to keep more communities safe from danger.

“It was a challenging day. The winds have increased; They haven’t let up,” fire department spokesman Todd Abel said Sunday night.

The rural area’s largest city — Las Vegas, New Mexico, with a population of 13,000 — sits on the eastern edge of the fire area and appeared safe for now thanks to fire lines dug with bulldozers and other preparations over the past week. But the northern and southern edges of the blaze still proved difficult for firefighters to contain, especially with winds up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour), Abel said.

The perimeter of the fire extended more than 96 kilometers from Las Vegas, New Mexico, on the southeast flank to near Holbrook, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Colorado line. The National Interagency Fire Center said early Sunday that more than 20,000 buildings remain at risk from the fire, which has destroyed about 300 homes over the past two weeks. The fire center said full containment is not expected before the end of July.

Fierce winds were expected to continue into Sunday evening and at least through Monday with little respite. Strong, gusty winds are in many ways firefighters’ worst nightmare, especially in such hot and dry conditions that crews in the South West have been grappling with since early April.

In addition to stoking and spreading the flames, such winds ground air tankers and light aircraft, which may throw water directly at the fire or deposit fire suppressant in front of its path, allowing bulldozers and ground crew to excavate firebreaks in locations where no highways or roads can help to stop the progress of the flames.

In extreme conditions, like those in New Mexico, even the helicopters that can normally get airborne — at least in the early hours of the morning before the wind picks up in the afternoon — are grounded. That means they’re unable to gather information about developments that are critical overnight to create new attack plans or place new orders for firefighters, engines and more aircraft from across the region, where demand is growing exponentially , as summer approaches and the more traditional fire season begins.

Planes were able to fly early Sunday but were grounded early in the afternoon, Abel said.

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

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

“It’s a dogfight out there folks,” Fire Department spokesman Bill Morse said Sunday night.

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

The city of Las Vegas seems safe for the time being, said Berlin. Some residents of the area were able to return to their homes on Saturday, and some shops and restaurants had reopened.

“We’ve even started to repopulate part of the city,” he said. “Our concern right now is the southwestern part of the fire, where the wind is kind of helping us because it’s blowing the flames back into the fire.”

But Wendy Mason of the New Mexico Forestry Division warned that “under no circumstances” is anyone “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,” she said.

Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time so many fires were reported at that time, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And forecasts for the remainder of spring do not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures caused by climate change have combined to exacerbate the threat of wildfires.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.

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https://wsvn.com/news/us-world/strong-swirling-winds-complicate-new-mexico-wildfire-fight/ Strong, Swirling Winds Complicate New Mexico Wildfire Fight – WSVN 7News | Miami News, Weather, Sports

Nate Jones

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