Fires hit Southwest, New Mexico season ‘dangerously early’

LAS VEGAS, NM – New Mexico faces a long and potentially devastating wildfire season, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Saturday, as wildfires in the Southwest cause destruction and force people to leave their homes.

Hundreds of structures have been lost in a growing number of wind-driven fires across drought-stricken New Mexico, Lujan Grisham said Saturday.

More than 20 active wildfires were burning in at least 16 of the state’s 33 counties, following winds of up to 90 mph on Friday, Lujan said in a briefing streamed online. “So half the state has a fire problem.”

With so many fires burning in April, well before the normal May or June start of wildfire season, “our hazard season is incredibly and dangerously early,” Lujan Grisham said.

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 poor management, as well as a 20-plus-year mega-drought that studies have linked to human-induced climate change.

New Mexico saw the most wildfires of any state on Saturday, though neighboring Arizona also saw large blazes, including one that burned 30 homes near Flagstaff on Tuesday.

Winds and temperatures in New Mexico eased on Saturday but remained strong enough to fan the fires, and dozens of evacuation orders remained in place.

More than 200 structures have burned, Lujan Grisham said, without providing details on the locations or the number of homes included in that count.

With fires still burning and charred areas too dangerous to enter, “it is not safe for you or for us to have a full assessment at this time,” she said, indicating that the number of structures lost would increase.

She called on residents to refrain from using fireworks or burning trash and to evacuate when fire warnings are issued. ” You have to leave. The risks are too great,” she said.

The largest fires have been centered in northern New Mexico, where two major blazes have merged and many villages have been threatened by advancing flames as residents respond to calls to leave.

Maggie Mulligan said on Friday her dogs could feel the panic as she and her husband packed them up, distressed at having to leave horses behind and fled a rapidly moving wildfire towards their home.

“We don’t know what’s next,” she said. “We don’t know if we can go back to the horses.”

Mulligan and her husband, Bill Gombas, 67, were among anxious residents who hastily evacuated their homes on Friday in the face of ominous wildfires fueled by dry conditions and fierce winds.

The merged fires burned some structures but no figures were available, said fire information officer Mike Johnson. “They were able to save some structures and we know we lost other structures that we couldn’t defend.”

Clouds of dust and plumes of windblown smoke obscured the sky near the fires, said Jesus Romero, deputy county manager for San Miguel. “All the ugliness that spring brings to New Mexico – that’s what they’re dealing with.”

About 500 homes in San Miguel were in rural areas of Mora and San Miguel counties covered by evacuation orders or warning notices, Romero said.

Elsewhere in the region, fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest in more than a decade, according to the National Weather Service, due to unusual temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.

Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in nearby Rociada for five generations, went out on Friday as the winds picked up. She said most people took the threat seriously.

“As a community, as a whole, everyone is coming together to support each other and take care of the things we need right now. And then at that point, it’s in God’s hands,” she said as the wind howled for miles in the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where evacuees gathered.

Areas ordered to evacuate on Saturday due to another large fire that continues to spread through northern New Mexico included the Philmont Scout Ranch. Meanwhile, the nearby town of Cimarron remained on notice of a possible evacuation, according to Colfax County officials.

The Scout Ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no Scouts were on the property and staff had already been evacuated due to poor quality air.

The Flagstaff-area fire also scorched many other buildings as flames roared through rural neighborhoods on Tuesday.

A shift in winds forced crews to work Saturday to keep the fire from moving up mountain slopes or toward homes in rural neighborhoods near areas that burned on Tuesday, fire information officer Dick Fleishman said. “That worries us a bit.”

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Davenport reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report. Attanasio reported from Las Vegas, New Mexico, and is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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