SANTA FE, NM – More than 1,000 firefighters backed by bulldozers and aircraft battled the largest active wildfire in the United States on Saturday after high winds pushed it through some containment lines and closer to a small town in northern New Mexico.
Preliminary overnight map images indicated the blaze that burned at least 166 homes grew from 103 square miles (266 square kilometers) on Friday to 152 square miles (393 square kilometers) early Saturday, officials said.
Ash carried seven miles through the air fell on Las Vegas, a population of around 13,000, and firefighters were trying to keep the blaze from getting any closer, said team spokesman Mike Johnson. fire management.
Calmer winds on Saturday helped fight the fires after gusts accelerated the fire’s progress to a point on Friday where “we were watching the fire walk about a mile every hour,” said Jayson Coil, an operations manager. of fire.
But more extreme fire danger was predicted Sunday for parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, according to the National Weather Service.
Winds in northern New Mexico gusted up to 65 mph (105 km/h) on Friday before easing as night fell. By Saturday, planes offloading fire retardant and water could resume flights to help ground crews and bulldozers.
The rapid growth of the fire on Friday forced crews to repeatedly change position due to threatening conditions, but managed to re-engage immediately without being forced to retreat, Coil said. No injuries were reported.
“Kind of a nod to anyone who made good decisions on the fly with limited information in a chaotic environment with a direct personal threat,” Coil said. “They did a great job.”
Winds first sent the flames furiously advancing on April 22 across the northern New Mexico landscape. Since then, crews have worked to limit damage to structures by installing sprinklers, pumps and pipes and clearing vegetation around buildings, officials said.
With that work and five times as many firefighters now working on the blaze, they were in a much better position than a week earlier and were on track to make “significant progress,” Carl Schwope, commander of the fire, said Friday. incident management team.
Saturday’s blaze was contained around about a third of its widest perimeter, down slightly from Thursday. The blaze began on April 6 when a prescribed burn set up by firefighters to remove small trees and brush that can fuel the fires was declared out of control. This fire then merged with another wildfire a week ago.
With the fire’s recent growth, estimates of the number of people forced to evacuate from largely rural areas and a subdivision near Las Vegas have doubled from 1,500-2,000 people to between 3,000-4,000 , said Jesus Romero, assistant director of the county of San Miguel.
Officials said the fire destroyed 277 structures, including at least 166 homes. No updated damage assessment was available Saturday, Romero said.
Wildfires were also still burning elsewhere in New Mexico and Arizona on Saturday. The fires are burning unusually hot and fast for this time of year, especially in the southwest, where experts said some woods in the region were drier than kiln-dried wood.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and later rains in the fall, scientists said. The problems have been exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and mismanagement, as well as a 20-plus-year mega-drought that studies have linked to human-induced climate change.
In northern Arizona, firefighters approached full containment of a 30 square mile (77 square kilometer) blaze that has destroyed at least 30 homes near Flagstaff and forced hundreds more to evacuate. On Friday, a high-level national forest fire management team handed over firefighting oversight to local firefighting forces.
Arizona’s National Forests announced it would impose fire restrictions starting next Thursday that would limit campfires to developed recreation sites and restrict smoking inside vehicles, other enclosed spaces and at recreational sites.
“Given the current drought conditions and the ‘very high’ level of fire danger, these activities are too risky,” said Taiga Rohrer, fire management officer for Tonto National Forest.
Davenport reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writer Felicia Foneca in Flagstaff and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.