FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Destructive fires in the U.S. Southwest have burned dozens of homes in northern Arizona and put numerous small villages in New Mexico in the path of danger, as wind-fueled flames chewed up wide swaths of tinder dry forest and grassland and plumes of smoke filled the sky.
“It's a very chaotic situation out there,” Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst, said during a briefing Friday night on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico. “We've had extreme fire behavior all day.”
Firefighters working to keep more homes from burning on the edge of a mountain town in northern Arizona were helped by some snow, scattered showers and cooler temperatures early Friday. But the favorable weather did not last and more gusts were expected to batter parts of Arizona and all of New Mexico through the weekend.
Crews were tackling more than a dozen large fires Friday nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 1,600 firefighters were battling six blazes in New Mexico and three in Arizona that have consumed more than 100 square miles (258 square kilometers) of timber and brush.
By Friday afternoon winds were howling across New Mexico,, gusting up to 75 mph (120 kph) near the Colorado line, shrouding the Rio Grande Valley with dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north. Fire officials expected one blaze northeast of Santa Fe to overrun several communities before Saturday.
A wall of smoke stretched from wilderness just east of Santa Fe some 50 miles (80 km) to the northeast where ranchers and other rural inhabitants were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement.
Maggie Mulligan, 68, of Ledoux, a dog breeder, and her husband, Brad Gombas, 67, left with nine dogs and five puppies packed into an SUV and an old blue Cadillac.
She said her dog Liam “was a nervous wreck,” when a sheriff came to their house Friday afternoon and told them to leave.
They agonized over having to leave their horses behind as they drove 40 miles (65 km) north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, to a middle school turned into a Red Cross shelter.
“We don't know what's next. We don't know if we can go back to the horses,” Mulligan said. “There’s water in their pasture and there’s hay so we’ll see what happens.”
With no air support or crews working directly on the fire lines, there was explosive growth in a number of fires. San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez warned the situation very dangerous.
Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in the nearby Rociada area for five generations, got out Friday as winds kicked up. She said people were taking the threat seriously.
“As a community, as a whole, everybody is just pulling together to support each other and just take care of the things we need to now. And then at that point, it’s in God’s hands,” she said as the wind howled miles away in the community of Las Vegas, where evacuees were gathering.
Another wind-whipped fire in northeastern New Mexico also was forcing evacuations while the town of Cimarron and the headquarters of the Philmont Scout Ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, were preparing to flee if necessary. The scout ranch attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no scouts were on the property.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.
In Arizona, flames had raced through rural neighborhoods outside Flagstaff just days earlier. A break in the weather Thursday allowed helicopters to drop water on the blaze and authorities to survey the damage.
They found 30 homes and numerous other buildings were destroyed, with sheriff's officials saying over 100 properties were affected. That fire has burned close to 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) and forced evacuations of 765 homes after starting last Sunday.
Authorities used alarms overnight Thursday to warn residents to flee evacuation areas, said sheriff's spokesman Jon Paxton. Howling winds muffled the alarms.
Kelly Morgan is among neighbors at the edge of the evacuation zone who did not leave. She and her husband have lived through wildfires before, she said, and they're prepared if winds shift and flames race toward the home they moved into three years ago.
“Unfortunately, it's not something new to us ... but I hate seeing it when people are affected the way they are right now," she said. "It's sad. It's a very sad time, but as a community, we've really come together.”
Wildfire has become a year-round threat in the West given changing conditions that include earlier snowmelt and rain coming later in the fall, 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.
Fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest it had been in over a decade, according to the National Weather Service, because of unseasonable temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions. New evacuations were ordered Friday west of Colorado Springs but there were no immediate reports of structures lost.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Cedar Attanasio in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.