Strong Winds Fuel Wildfires in New Mexico

Strong winds and unusually high temperatures were expected to continue to fuel wildfires on Monday in New Mexico, where several fires, including one of the largest in the state’s history, were encroaching on communities and prompting evacuations.

On Monday, the National Weather Service in Albuquerque predicted “critical to extreme” fire conditions across New Mexico, including damaging winds, high temperatures and very low humidity. “We can’t plead enough: Heed evacuations,” the Weather Service said on Twitter.

There was little relief in sight, despite a forecast that called for showers and thunderstorms in the eastern part of the state on Tuesday. Those storms could bring with them lightning that could ignite new fires, Todd Shoemake, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said.

“We are not going to get any benefit,” he said. “We like to think rain is good, but the grasses are dry.”

The forecast was being closely monitored in New Mexico, where the authorities were struggling to combat the state’s second largest fire on record. As more than a dozen wildfires were sweeping across the American Southwest, the country’s largest active blaze, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, which started last month, continued to threaten communities east of Santa Fe on Monday.

In the latest report on the destruction caused by the fire, federal and local agencies said it had spread to more than 176,000 acres and was 21 percent contained. The fire was ravaging the conifer, pine, brush and grass as it swept wider, propelled by high winds that were forecast to continue through Monday, complicating the efforts of firefighters to stop its growth, the agencies said.

“Firefighters put in many control measures to stop and check the fire, and continue to do so,” the report said. “These control features are holding in some areas, but the wind is testing them in others.”

As federal and local agencies teamed up to fight the wildfires, local law enforcement agencies ordered evacuations. The megafire has threatened a multigenerational culture that has endured for centuries, with many descendants of the region’s Hispanic settlers, who arrived in New Mexico long before the United States came into existence, evacuating their homes and communities.

Mr. Shoemake, of the National Weather Service, said much of northern and central New Mexico were about 5 to 10 degrees warmer than is typical for this time of year. Temperatures in the state’s mountain valleys, for example, were in the low to mid-80s on Monday, about 15 degrees above normal for this time of year, he said.

“We are projecting a high of 86” on Monday, Mr. Shoemake said, “which is about 9 degrees above where it should be.”

The combination of low moisture and humidity is bad news for those fighting to contain the fire, he said. And wind gusts of 45 to 65 miles per hour could threaten the safety of firefighters by causing erratic changes in the direction of the flames.

Wildfires are increasing in size and intensity in the Western United States, and wildfire seasons are growing longer. Recent research has suggested that the heat and dryness associated with global warming are major reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire is the second largest on record in New Mexico, after a fire that burned through more than 297,000 acres in 2012, and it has eclipsed the total acreage lost to fires in the state in 2021.

Last week, President Biden approved a disaster declaration for five counties in New Mexico that have been affected by wildfires: Colfax, Lincoln, San Miguel, Valencia and Mora.

In Mora County, where the Cooks Peak fire has spread to more than 59,000 acres, people were ordered to evacuate their homes on Sunday, and several shelters were set up by emergency officials. Some traveled north with their livestock, and ended up at the Juan I. Gonzales Agricultural Center, an exhibition and 4-H activity space in Taos County.

The evacuees, many of whom brought with them only their medications and a few belongings, have settled in on cots and eaten meals provided by local churches, Bobby Lucero, the county emergency management officer, said on Monday.

“We have been able to house sheeps, goats and lambs,” he said. “Some of these folks make their living off of livestock.”

“As far as morale goes, they are patient,” he said. “But you can tell they want to go back home.”

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