Potentially historic winds forecast as firefighters battle New Mexico wildfire | New Mexico

Extreme wind conditions described as potentially historic were forecast for New Mexico on Saturday and for days to come as hundreds of firefighters and a fleet of planes and helicopters worked feverishly to reinforce lines around the largest fire burning in the US.

Many families have already been left homeless and thousands of residents have been evacuated as flames have charred large swaths of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico.

Residents on the fringes of the shifting fire front were hopeful that all the work done in recent days to clear brush, install sprinklers, lay hoses and use bulldozers to scrape lines will prevent the fire from reaching the small town of Las Vegas and other towns to the north and south.

“There is uncertainty and fear about how the winds will affect the fire from day to day,” said Elmo Baca, president of the Las Vegas Community Foundation.

“Once people are evacuated from an area, they can’t go back, so they just worry.”

The fire has blackened more than 262 square miles (678 square kilometers) in recent weeks.

The start of the conflagration has been attributed in part to a preventive fire started by the US Forest Service in early April to reduce flammable vegetation. The fire got out of control and merged 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 that much fire was reported nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And predictions for the rest of the spring don’t bode well for the West, where long-term drought and warmer temperatures brought on by the climate crisis have combined to worsen the threat of wildfires.

Wooded areas in southern New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado also saw an early start with fires that forced evacuations and destroyed homes last month.

Incident Commander Dave Bales said firefighters working in northeastern New Mexico have focused on protecting homes and other structures that hold sacred memories for generations.

“It’s hard when I see so many displaced people,” he said, noting that many hugs have been shared in the city.

Crews have seen extreme wind events before that typically last a day, maybe two. But Bales said this event could last five or more days with gusts topping 50-60 mph (80-96 km/h). He also warned that the flames could travel up to a mile.

“This is an extreme wind event that is unprecedented,” Bales said.

Another major wildfire in New Mexico was within 5 miles of Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the country’s key facilities for nuclear research and future production of plutonium components for nuclear weapons.

Crews have burned vegetation before the fire in an effort to reduce its intensity and the potential for point fires. At the lab, tankers, a helicopter and heavy equipment are in position and firefighters will patrol the perimeter if the flames get any closer.

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