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Southwest wildfire outlook grim as flames char New Mexico

The Calf Fire burns northwest of Las Vegas in San Miguel County on April 22, 2022. Destructive Southwest fires 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 towering plumes of smoke filled the sky. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE – Bulldozers were busy Monday scraping through New Mexico’s high country as firefighters scouted more rugged terrain, looking for places where they could wield tools to dig lines that stop what has grown into the largest wildfire burning in the U.S.

Nearly a dozen new large fires were reported over the weekend across the nation – four in New Mexico, three in Colorado and one each in Florida, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas. With more than 1,350 square miles burned so far this year, officials at the National Interagency Fire Center said the amount of land singed so far is outpacing the 10-year average by about 30%.

This image provided by the Nebraska State Patrol shows smoke from a wildfire, Saturday, April 23, 2022 near Cambridge, Neb. Several small towns, including Cambridge, Bartley, Indianola and Wilsonville, in Nebraska’s southwest and Macy in its northeast, were forced to temporarily evacuate because of the wind-driven wildfires. (Nebraska State Patrol via AP)

Hotter, drier weather has combined with a persistent drought to worsen fire danger across many parts of the West, where decades of fire suppression have resulted in overgrown and unhealthy forests and increasing development have put more communities at risk.

In northern New Mexico, evacuations remained in place for several communities Monday and conditions were still too volatile for authorities to assess the damage caused Friday and Saturday as fierce winds pushed flames across tinder-dry mountainsides in multiple counties.

Fire officials said they were able to protect pockets of homes threatened by the largest fire, which had joined over the weekend with another blaze that was sparked in early April when a prescribed fire escaped containment. Together, they have charred more than 88 square miles.

Operation sections chief Jayson Coil said Monday that crews working on the complex were trying to take advantage of better weather to keep the flames from moving closer to the villages and homes that dot the valleys along the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

“There’s a whole bunch of effort going on around this fire right now,” Coil said during a briefing.

In Arizona, firefighters were taking advantage of lighter winds to boost containment of a more than 33-square-mile blaze that has been burning outside of Flagstaff for more than a week. Strong winds that had fueled the fire are expected to return later this week. Meanwhile, hundreds of residents who were evacuated were given the OK on Sunday to return home.

Chandra Campos hugs her daughter Alyssa Carlos, 14, as they search through the remains of their home in Monte Vista, Colo., on April 22, 2022, after a fire fueled by high winds Wednesday burned 17 structures and displaced six families. Campos and her family lost everything except the clothes on their backs, two dogs and a cat. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

Crews in Nebraska continued securing fire lines Monday after a blaze that started last week near the Kansas border had spread rapidly – moving nearly 30 miles in a short period of time. The blaze killed one person and injured at least 11 firefighters.

Elected officials in Arizona and New Mexico have declared emergencies related to the latest wildfires, freeing up disaster aid. Meanwhile, local, state and federal land managers in some areas have started to impose burn bans and fire restrictions, citing the continued dry conditions that plague much of the region.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday signed an executive order urging municipalities and counties around the state to ban the retail sale of fireworks. While state statutes don’t allow the governor to implement a statewide ban on fireworks, the executive order comes after the implementation of statewide fire restrictions prohibiting fireworks, outdoor smoking, campfires and open burning for all nonmunicipal, nonfederal and nontribal lands.

Lujan Grisham called the situation extremely dangerous.

“It’s essential that we mitigate potential wildfires by removing as much risk as possible,” she said.

The latest blazes follow one earlier this month in southern New Mexico that destroyed more than 200 homes in the mountain community of Ruidoso. Two residents who were attempting to evacuate were found dead outside their charred home.

Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.

Firefighters work on hot spots in an area that burned trees across from a building under construction, Friday, April 22, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The fire occurred in a ravine across the road from a heavily populated area along Voyager Parkway, near houses, some still under construction. Homes were evacuated in the area, because of the gusting winds, some up to 50 mph. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)
A member of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management Phoenix Crew dig at burning roots as another crew member searches for smoke in Division Alpha of the Tunnel Fire while looking for hot spots, Thursday, April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz. (Tom Story/Northern Arizona Type 3 Incident Management Team, via AP)
Kylee Moberg tries to get through a roadblock on N.M. 94 to get to her friend and horses, Friday April 22, 2022. Destructive Southwest fires 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 towering plumes of smoke filled the sky.(Eddie Moore=/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)
A pair of Resource Advisors from the Coconino National Forest record data in Division Alpha as they work to determine the severity of Tunnel Fires impact on the Forest. April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz. The San Francisco Peaks in the rear show the effects of the 2010 Schultz Fire. (Tom Story/Northern Arizona Type 3 Incident Management Team, via AP)
San Miguel County Sheriff's Officers patrol N.M. 94 near Penasco Blanco, N.M. as the Calf Fire burns near by Friday, April 22, 2022. Destructive Southwest fires 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 towering plumes of smoke filled the sky. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)
Lukas Snart, of Cimarron, N.M. sits in his truck at a police roadblock on NM21 south of Cimarron, N.M. Friday, April 22, 2022. Police blocked the road that leads to the Philmont Scout Ranch because of the Cooks Peak Fire. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)