Warnings of critical fire conditions are scattered across much of the southwestern United States this weekend as crews in northern New Mexico worked to halt the growth of the country’s largest active wildfire.
Federal investigators have announced that two fires that combined to form the largest wildfire in New Mexico history have been traced to planned burns that federal forest managers have identified as precautions.
The seven-week fire has burned 491 square miles of forest in rugged terrain east of Santa Fe since it was started by two arson attacks set by authorities in April.
Crews patrolled partially burned areas this weekend, clearing and cutting containment lines, including primary lines near the fire, as bulldozers scraped further containment lines.
The National Weather Service has issued critical fire warnings for parts of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. These conditions are a combination of high winds, low relative humidity and dry vegetation.
The return of warmer, drier weather with stronger winds posed a threat to increased fire activity during the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, prompting officials to urge the public to attach tow chains to the backs of their cars, which could cause sparks if they pull out. route and pay special attention to other potential fire sources.
“The last thing we need right now is another igniter,” said Jason Coyle, COO.
The forecast predicts wind gusts of up to 80 km/h, with critical fire conditions continuing into Monday, followed by more favorable weather later next week, Bruno Rodriguez, a meteorologist for the fire management team, said.
High winds could spark the flames and cause the fire to jump over containment lines and move forward, said John Chest, director of the fire department.
“Imagine you are traveling in your car and a fire can overtake you. This is the kind of extreme shooting behavior we’re talking about,” Chest said.
Nearly 3,000 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to light the fires, which covered about 48% of their surroundings.
According to initial estimates, the fire destroyed at least 330 homes, but New Mexico state officials expect the number of burned homes and other structures to rise to more than 1,000 as further investigations are conducted.
The US Forest Service has not yet released detailed planning documents for originally planned burns that could provide an indication of whether fire protocols were followed.
Scientists and forest managers are racing to develop new tools to predict the behavior of planned fires in the face of climate change and prolonged drought in the American West.
Deliberately lit fires, known as prescribed burns, are intended to reduce the buildup of wood and vegetation that can fuel extremely hot and destructive wildfires if left unattended.
Elsewhere, firefighters battled a wind-driven wildfire about 14 miles southwest of Parker, Arizona. A California fire jumped over the Colorado River in Arizona on Saturday.