SANTA FE – New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed emergency declarations as 20 wildfires continued to burn Sunday in nearly half of the state’s drought-stricken 33 counties.
One wildfire in northern New Mexico that started April 6 merged with a newer fire Saturday to form the largest blaze in the state, leading to widespread evacuations in Mora and San Miguel counties. That fire was at 84 square miles (217 square kilometers) Sunday and 12% contained.
An uncontained wind-driven wildfire in northern New Mexico that began April 17 had charred 81 square miles (209 square kilometers) of ponderosa pine, oak brush and grass by Sunday morning north of Ocate, an unincorporated community in Mora County.
Meanwhile in Arizona, some residents forced to evacuate due to a wildfire near Flagstaff were allowed to return home Sunday morning.
In Nebraska, authorities said wind-driven wildfires sweeping through parts of the state killed a retired Cambridge fire chief and injured at least 11 firefighters.
Winds and temperatures in New Mexico diminished Saturday but remained strong enough to still fan fires. Dozens of evacuation orders remained in place.
Fire officials were expecting the northern wildfires to slow Sunday as cloud and smoke cover moves in, allowing the forests to retain more moisture. But they added that the interior portions of the fires could show moderate to extreme behavior, which could threaten structures in those areas.
More than 200 structures have been charred by the wildfires thus far and an additional 900 remain threatened, Lujan Grisham said.
Fire management officials said an exact damage count was unclear because it’s still too dangerous for crews to go in and look at all the homes that have been lost.
“We do not know the magnitude of the structure loss. We don’t even know the areas where most homes made it through the fire, where homes haven’t been damaged or anything like that,” said operation sections chief Jayson Coil.
Some 1,000 firefighters were battling the wildfires across New Mexico, which already has secured about $3 million in grants to help with the fires.
Lujan Grisham said she has asked the White House for more federal resources and she’s calling for a ban of fireworks statewide.
“We need more federal bodies for firefighting, fire mitigation, public safety support on the ground in New Mexico,” she said. “It’s going to be a tough summer. So that’s why we are banning fires. And that is why on Monday I will be asking every local government to be thinking about ways to ban the sales of fireworks.”
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.
In Arizona, two large wildfires continued to burn Sunday 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Prescott and 14 miles (22 kilometers) northeast of Flagstaff.
Coconino County authorities lifted the evacuation order Sunday morning for residents living in neighborhoods along Highway 89 after fire management officials determined the Flagstaff-area wildfire no longer posed a threat.
The fire near Flagstaff was at 33 square miles (85 square kilometers) as of Sunday with 3% containment. It forced the evacuation of 766 homes and burned down 30 homes and two dozen other structures since it began a week ago, according to county authorities.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared the fire a state of emergency Thursday for Coconino County to free up recovery aid to affected communities.
The wildfire near Prescott began last Monday and was at 4.8 square miles (12.4 square kilometers) and 15% contained as of Sunday morning as helicopters and air tankers dropped water and retardant to slow the fire’s growth.
The cause of the wildfires in New Mexico and Arizona remain under investigation.
Nebraska Emergency Management Agency officials said John P. Trumble, of Arapahoe, was overcome by smoke and fire after his vehicle left the road Friday night because of poor visibility from smoke and dust.
Trumble, 66, was working with firefighters as a spotter in Red Willow County in the southwestern corner of the state and his body was found early Saturday, authorities said.
Wildfires were still burning Saturday night in five Nebraska counties. The Nebraska National Guard deployed three helicopters and several support trucks to help battle the blazes.