ALBUQUERQUE – Bulldozers were busy Monday scraping through New Mexico’s high country as firefighters scouted more rugged terrain, looking for places where they could wield tools to dig lines that stop what has grown into the largest wildfire burning in the U.S.
Nearly a dozen new large fires were reported over the weekend across the nation – four in New Mexico, three in Colorado and one each in Florida, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas. With more than 1,350 square miles burned so far this year, officials at the National Interagency Fire Center said the amount of land singed so far is outpacing the 10-year average by about 30%.
Hotter, drier weather has combined with a persistent drought to worsen fire danger across many parts of the West, where decades of fire suppression have resulted in overgrown and unhealthy forests and increasing development have put more communities at risk.
In northern New Mexico, evacuations remained in place for several communities Monday and conditions were still too volatile for authorities to assess the damage caused Friday and Saturday as fierce winds pushed flames across tinder-dry mountainsides in multiple counties.
Fire officials said they were able to protect pockets of homes threatened by the largest fire, which had joined over the weekend with another blaze that was sparked in early April when a prescribed fire escaped containment. Together, they have charred more than 88 square miles.
Operation sections chief Jayson Coil said Monday that crews working on the complex were trying to take advantage of better weather to keep the flames from moving closer to the villages and homes that dot the valleys along the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“There’s a whole bunch of effort going on around this fire right now,” Coil said during a briefing.
In Arizona, firefighters were taking advantage of lighter winds to boost containment of a more than 33-square-mile blaze that has been burning outside of Flagstaff for more than a week. Strong winds that had fueled the fire are expected to return later this week. Meanwhile, hundreds of residents who were evacuated were given the OK on Sunday to return home.
Crews in Nebraska continued securing fire lines Monday after a blaze that started last week near the Kansas border had spread rapidly – moving nearly 30 miles in a short period of time. The blaze killed one person and injured at least 11 firefighters.
Elected officials in Arizona and New Mexico have declared emergencies related to the latest wildfires, freeing up disaster aid. Meanwhile, local, state and federal land managers in some areas have started to impose burn bans and fire restrictions, citing the continued dry conditions that plague much of the region.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday signed an executive order urging municipalities and counties around the state to ban the retail sale of fireworks. While state statutes don’t allow the governor to implement a statewide ban on fireworks, the executive order comes after the implementation of statewide fire restrictions prohibiting fireworks, outdoor smoking, campfires and open burning for all nonmunicipal, nonfederal and nontribal lands.
Lujan Grisham called the situation extremely dangerous.
“It’s essential that we mitigate potential wildfires by removing as much risk as possible,” she said.
The latest blazes follow one earlier this month in southern New Mexico that destroyed more than 200 homes in the mountain community of Ruidoso. Two residents who were attempting to evacuate were found dead outside their charred home.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.