Weather described as potentially historic is in store for New Mexico on Saturday and over the next few days as the largest fire currently burning in the United States eats away at drier mountainsides.
Weather described as potentially historic was in store for New Mexico on Saturday and for the following days as hundreds of firefighters and a fleet of planes and helicopters worked feverishly to reinforce lines around the largest blaze in the USA.
Many families have already been left homeless and thousands of residents have been evacuated as the flames charred large swaths of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
Residents on the fringes of the shifting fire front remained hopeful that all the work done in recent days to clear brush, install sprinklers, run pipes and use bulldozers to scrape lines will keep the fire from reaching the small city of Las Vegas and other villages to the north and south.
“There is uncertainty and fear about how the winds are going to affect the fire on a day-to-day basis,” said Elmo Baca, president of the Las Vegas Community Foundation. “Once people are evacuated from an area, they can’t go back, so they’re stuck worrying.”
The blaze has blackened more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers) in recent weeks.
The start of the conflagration was attributed in part to a preventative fire initiated by the US Forest Service in early April to reduce flammable vegetation. The blaze spiraled out of control, merging with another wildfire of unknown origin.
Nationwide, nearly 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year, with 2018 being the last time such a fire was reported across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. . And the forecast for the rest of the spring does not bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have combined to heighten the threat of wildfires.
Forested areas in southern New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado also got off to an early start with fires forcing evacuations and destroying homes last month.
Incident Commander Dave Bales said firefighters working in northeast New Mexico have been focused on protecting homes and other structures that hold generations of sacred memories.
“It’s hard when I see so many displaced people,” he said, noting that many hugs were shared in the city.
Crews have seen extreme wind events before that usually last a day, maybe two. But Bales said this event could last five days or more with gusts reaching 50 to 60 mph (80 to 96 kph). He also warned that the flames could be carried up to a mile away.
“This is an unprecedented extreme wind event,” Bales said.
Another large wildfire burning in New Mexico was less than 5 miles from Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation’s key facilities for nuclear research and future production of plutonium components for nuclear weapons.
Crews burned vegetation prior to the fire in an effort to reduce its intensity and the potential for spot fires. At the lab, tankers, a helicopter and heavy equipment are in place and firefighters will patrol the perimeter if the flames come close.
Some nuclear watchdog groups and environmentalists have raised concerns about nuclear waste containers on lab property. That includes six shipments of 109 containers awaiting transport to the federal government’s underground waste repository, state officials said.
Laboratory officials said Friday that radiological and other potentially hazardous materials are stored in containers designed and tested to withstand extreme environments, including the heat of a fire.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.