More than 1,000 firefighters backed by bulldozers and aircraft battled the largest active wildfire in the US on Saturday after strong winds pushed it across some containment lines and closer to a town in northern New Mexico.
Preliminary overnight mapping imagery indicated that the fire that has burned at least 166 homes grew in size from 103 square miles on Friday to 152 square miles by early Saturday, officials said.
Ash carried seven miles through the air fell on Las Vegas, population about 13,000, and firefighters were trying to prevent the blaze from getting closer, said Mike Johnson, a spokesperson for the fire management team.
Calmer winds on Saturday were aiding the firefighting effort after gusts accelerated the fire’s advance to a point on Friday when “we were watching the fire march about a mile every hour”, said Jayson Coil, a fire operations official.
Winds gusted up to 65 mph on Friday before subsiding as nightfall approached. By Saturday, aircraft that dump fire retardant and water could resume flights to aid ground crews and bulldozers.
The fire’s rapid growth on Friday had forced crews to repeatedly change positions because of threatening conditions but they managed to immediately re-engage without being forced to retreat, Coil said. No injuries were reported.
“Kind of a nod to everybody out there that made good decisions on the fly with limited information in a chaotic environment with direct personal threat,” Coil said. “They did an excellent job.”
The winds first sent the flames advancing furiously on 22 April across the northern New Mexico landscape. Since then, crews have worked to limit structural damage by installing sprinklers, pumps and hoses and clearing vegetation around buildings, officials said.
With that work and five times as many firefighters now tackling the fire, they were in much better position than a week earlier and were on track to make “tremendous progress”, Carl Schwope, the incident management team’s commander said on Friday.
The fire on Saturday was contained around about a third of its larger perimeter, down a little from Thursday. The fire started on 6 April when a prescribed burn set by firefighters to clear out small trees and brush that can fuel fires was declared out of control. That fire then merged with another wildfire a week ago.
With the fire’s recent growth, estimates of people forced to evacuate largely rural areas plus a subdivision near Las Vegas doubled from 1,500 to 2,000 people to between 3,000 and 4,000, said Jesus Romero, the assistant manager for San Miguel County.
Officials have said the fire has destroyed 277 structures, including at least 166 homes. No updated damage assessments were available on Saturday, Romero said.
Wildfires were also still burning on Saturday elsewhere in New Mexico and in Arizona. The fires are burning unusually hot and fast for this time of year, especially in the south-west, where experts said some timber in the region is drier than kiln-dried wood.
Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the west given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the autumn, scientist have said.
The problems have been exacerbated by decades of fire suppression and poor management along with a more than 20-year megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change.
In northern Arizona, firefighters neared full containment of a 30 square mile blaze that destroyed at least 30 homes near Flagstaff and forced hundreds to evacuate. A top-level national wildfire management team turned oversight of fighting the blaze back to local firefighting forces on Friday.
National forests across Arizona announced they would impose fire restrictions starting next Thursday that limit campfires to developed recreation sites and restrict smoking to inside vehicles, other enclosed spaces and to the recreation sites.
“Given current drought conditions and the ‘very high’ fire danger level, it is too risky for these activities,” said Taiga Rohrer, fire management officer for the Tonto national forest.