TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Wind-driven wildfires exploded in size in northern New Mexico, destroying multiple homes and forcing hundreds to flee mountain villages as blazes raged early in the year in the parched U.S. Southwest.
Two wildfires merged northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico and raced through 15 miles of forest driven by winds of over 75 mph (121 kph), local authorities and fire officials said on Saturday.
To the northeast, fierce winds sent another blaze towards the Philmont Scout Ranch and the village of Cimarron.
The wildfires were the most severe of nearly two dozen in the U.S. Southwest and raised concerns the region was in for a brutal fire year as a decades-long drought combined with abundant dry vegetation.
“Fire season isn’t even here yet, you know this is April,” said Michael Johnson, a spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest and a 20-year veteran wildland firefighter. “This is probably one of the biggest fire events I’ve been associated with.”
The so-called Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires combined to burn 42,341 acres, an area larger than Florida’s Disney World. The blaze was set to turn east into dry grassland, giving crews a chance to bulldoze fire breaks to protect Mora and other villages to the north, said incident commander Jayson Coil.
Over 500 homes were evacuated but some people chose to stay behind, according to local authorities.
“We have heard there was pretty extensive damage,” said Joy Ansley, a spokeswoman for San Miguel County in Las Vegas. “It sounds like Pendaries was maybe hit pretty hard.”
Pendaries is a rural community with dozens of homes as well as a resort area and golf club near the village of Rociada.
Climate change has lowered winter snowpacks and allowed larger and more extreme fires to start earlier in the year, according to scientists.
Around 35 miles east of Taos, New Mexico, the Cooks Peak fire threatened the Philmont Scout Ranch and village of Cimarron. Firefighters in Arizona continued to contain the Tunnel fire near Flagstaff which has burned dozens of homes.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Andrea Ricci)
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