Wind-whipped flames raced across pine-covered mountainsides in the US state of New Mexico on Monday, forcing residents to flee their homes and leading to the evacuation of the state’s psychiatric hospital.
Hundreds of households in an historic city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains were told to evacuate immediately as intense winds and bone-dry conditions fuelled the huge wildfire burning on the outskirts of town.
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The blaze, dubbed the Calf Canyon Wildfire, had scorched more than 41,682 hectares (102,998 acres), or more than half the area of New York City, as of Monday morning, according to United States Forest Service officials in New Mexico.
It was 30 percent contained as of Monday as it burned drought-parched vegetation northwest of the city of Las Vegas, home to 13,000 people.
“We’re trying to house and feed people with skeleton crews. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. It’s an extraordinary tragedy,” said Allen Affeldt, who owns a hotel in Las Vegas.
The fire, the largest active US wildfire right now, is one of a dozen blazes now burning in the southwestern United States. Scientists say wildfires are more widespread and arriving earlier this year due to climate change.
More than 3,100 wildland firefighters and support personnel were fighting fires across the country, with about one-third of them trying to prevent the big blaze in New Mexico from spreading.
“It is extremely smoked out here. Lots of smoke and falling ash,” Jesus Romero, the deputy county manager of San Miguel County, told the Reuters news agency in an interview.
“The winds are starting to pick up now and we are starting to get a lot more wind.”
Forecasters issued a red flag warning for the area, signalling that fires could start and spread easily, amid winds of 80kph (50mph) and humidity as low as five percent expected through Monday.
State health officials said they began evacuating all 197 patients at the Behavioral Health Institute due to the fast-moving fire.
Patients were being sent to other facilities around the state, with some being transported in secured units and others escorted by police.
Several hundred households in the northwestern corner of Las Vegas were told to evacuate immediately on Monday morning, San Miguel County said in an alert.
“This emerging situation remains extremely serious and refusal to evacuate could be a fatal decision,” the county said.
Another 4,000 to 5,000 people have been told to be ready to evacuate immediately, Romero said.
Crews bulldozed fire breaks to the north and west of the historic university town to protect ranches, rural houses and the United World College.
Officials have said the northeastern New Mexico fire, which has been burning since April 6, has damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures.
The residents of nearby communities were told to evacuate on Sunday as strong wind gusts drove the fire near their mountain valley communities.
Across New Mexico, officials and groups were collecting food, water and other supplies for the thousands of people displaced by the fires.
Offers of prayers and hope flooded social media as residents posted photos of the flames torching the tops of towering ponderosa pines near their homes.
Forecasters have issued fire weather watches and red flag warnings for extreme fire danger across wide swaths of New Mexico and western Texas.
Gm all. Please send good vibes to New Mexico as firefighters battle an enormous wildfire, happening in the mountains pictured here. I’m safe, but many people I know are in the path of the fire, and winds are raging. It sure makes you think hard about what matters. pic.twitter.com/yrMxcK2yR2
— Kat Livengood 🐴 KatLivengood.eth (@LivengoodKat) May 2, 2022