Forecasters in New Mexico are warning of worsening fire conditions this weekend, with gusts of wind expected to intensify as firefighters try to contain wildfires that have burned unusually hot and fast for weeks.
Winds in the region were expected to pick up to 20 to 30 mph on Sunday, with gusts as high as 45 mph, said Chuck Jones, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. These winds could help the fire spread faster, pushing flames into tree canopies or blowing embers.
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New Mexico has already seen more fire damage in the first four months of 2022 than the entire last year. Already, 199 fires have burned 187,477 acres in the state this year, according to data from the Southwest Coordination Center. New Mexico officials have warned of a long and dangerous fire season, as it is unusual to have so many fires burning so early in the year.
Gusts as high as 60 mph on Friday fueled the severe Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fires, extending the fire by more than 30,000 acres in a single day and forcing residents in nearby areas to evacuate. The U.S. Forest Service reported that the area would experience persistent smoke status Saturday. A government website predicted “extreme fire behavior” in the area for the next 72 hours, in part due to the strong winds.
During a briefing Saturday afternoon, officials said they were working to contain the fire from the south using aircraft.
“There’s a lot of fuel, and there are no natural features that would stop the fire if it started moving aggressively,” said Jayson Coil, an operations section chief for a Southwest Incident Management team. “It’s going to be a matter of seeing how well we do, in terms of how much energy that fire puts out. It’s a bit of a race right now.”
As of Saturday afternoon, more than 1,000 firefighters had been deployed to fight these fires, which consumed more than 97,000 acres and were 32 percent contained, according to a government website. Officials deployed several scooper planes and helicopters Saturday to try to contain the fires further.
California, which itself is experiencing a historically severe drought, is sending firefighters to New Mexico to help contain the blaze.
“Please follow evacuation orders and listen to local officials when they say you have to go now – buildings can be replaced, but you can not,” New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) wrote in a Facebook post Saturday morning. .
State Representative Roger Montoya, a Democrat representing some of the northeastern counties affected by the fires, shared photos of the devastation Friday on Twitter.
In addition to destroying winds, the National Weather Service predicts possible major hail and a tornado over eastern New Mexico on Sunday.
Other regions in the southwest and plains were preparing for similar conditions. The National Weather Service in Pueblo warned of “critical fire conditions” Sunday over large parts of south-central Colorado.
Dangerous fire-weather conditions again directed to the southwest and plains
Lujan Grisham said Friday that the state had been granted federal emergency aid for several fires in the state, including Hermit’s Peak.
Rising temperatures from man-made climate change increase the risk of wildfires, researchers have found, as vegetation dries out faster and provides more fuel.
Climate Central, a nonprofit science communications organization, reported last year that the number of “fire weather” days has increased in parts of New Mexico, Texas and Southern California since the 1970s. The organization analyzed days with relatively low humidity, warmer temperatures and wind between 1973 and 2020.
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.