New Mexico and Arizona crews rush to corral wildfires

Firefighters in the foothills of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains dig new firebreaks and clear brush to prevent a massive wildfire from destroying more homes and pine forests

LAS VEGAS, NM – Firefighters in northern New Mexico worked Monday through rough terrain ahead of a massive wildfire, feverishly trying to position crews to clear brush and stop the monster from burning more homes in the foothills of the Rockies.

The wildfire charred 308 square miles (798 square kilometers) of dry ponderosa forests, making it the largest blaze in the United States during what was an early start to the fire season. Thousands of people were evacuated.

Much of the southwest has been plagued by drought for decades and warmer temperatures have combined with spring winds to create dangerous fire conditions.

Crews in Arizona battled high winds on Monday as they battled a fire near the US-Mexico border that forced dozens of people from their homes.

And another wildfire in northern New Mexico near key federal government facilities for nuclear research has prompted Los Alamos National Laboratory and others in the area to begin preparing for evacuations, though the officials stressed that there was no immediate threat to the lab.

The fire has burned nearly 64 square miles (165 square kilometers).

Officials said some medically fragile residents and large animals have already been moved out of the area to ease traffic congestion if evacuations are ordered. They anticipated that residents would have at least a day or two notice before they were forced to leave.

“If the fire kicks into fifth gear, it will be here sooner than we would like,” Incident Commander Rich Harvey said. “We are doing everything we can to verify that.”

Strong, gusty winds continued to blow through the area after stoking the fires for weeks and often grounding essential aircraft used to drop water or fire retardant in front of the blazes, complicating efforts to contain them. Wind will continue to be a factor this week, along with low humidity, but to varying degrees depending on the day.

Fire officials predicted that part of New Mexico’s main blaze would push north through rugged terrain that is difficult for firefighters to access.

“It’s no surprise to us. All models showed this was likely to happen,” said fire operations section chief Todd Abel, adding that crews spent days working to protect ranch homes scattered across the area.

Nearly 1,700 firefighters were battling the blaze that was burning northeast of Santa Fe and was nearly 50 percent contained. It destroyed nearly 300 structures, including homes, commercial buildings and barns.

The region’s largest population center – Las Vegas, New Mexico, home to 13,000 people – remained largely untouched by the flames after some area residents were allowed to return over the weekend -end. Schools were due to resume in-person classes on Tuesday.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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