‘Extremely Critical Fire Weather’ Threatens the Southwest
A large swath of the United States faced twin weather threats on Friday as a severe drought turned parts of the Southwest into a tinderbox, ripe for more wildfires, and powerful storms threatened to produce tornadoes and hail across the Central Plains.
More than 160,000 acres across New Mexico have already burned in recent weeks, and the National Weather Service warned on Friday of an “extremely critical fire weather area” over northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas. It also described a “critical fire weather” area over the southern High Plains, which includes Texas and Oklahoma.
The Weather Service blamed strong gusty winds, low relative humidity and an abundance of dry grass and brush for the elevated risk of wildfires. Parts of the Southwest — including large parts of New Mexico — have been seared by drought and raked by high winds, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread quickly.
“It’s been like hell. It’s been like we’re getting ready to burn up here in town,” said Bill Cox, who with his sister owns the Hillcrest Restaurant in Las Vegas, N.M., a city of 13,000 people.
Their city, about 70 miles east of Santa Fe, is the largest community near the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fires, which started separately this month but have merged into one and scorched more than 65,000 acres.
More than 950 firefighters have been battling the blaze, and the authorities have ordered evacuations in parts of San Miguel and Mora Counties, as they warned residents to be on high alert. A main concern: strong winds, which were expected to gust up to 60 miles per hour on Friday.
“This emerging situation remains extremely serious and refusal to evacuate could be a fatal decision,” the sheriff’s offices in those counties said in a statement. More than 275 structures, including 166 homes and three commercial buildings, have been destroyed in San Miguel County, officials said.
Mr. Cox said the fire had burned a golf course and come within a half mile of his property outside Las Vegas. Roads have been blocked, and smoke has filled the air.
“People are freaking out,” he said. “People are really on edge.”
Logs in the area are drier than the kiln-dried two-by-fours sold in hardware stores, said Mike Johnson, a fire information officer working on the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fire. “With the fuel conditions we have, folks need to be prepared not only for this fire, but from any new starts that are going to be established,” he said.
Mr. Cox said he had given Red Cross workers burritos when they came to his restaurant, and offered them more on their next visit. “The whole community is stepping up and working together,” he said.
Another fire further north, the Cooks Peak fire, has charred more than 55,000 acres in northeastern New Mexico since it started on April 17.
More than 520 firefighters have been battling that blaze, but the high winds on Friday were making it too dangerous for firefighting aircraft to join the attack, said David Shell, a spokesman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, which is coordinating efforts to fight the Cooks Peak fire.
“It’s scary out there,” Mr. Shell said. “You have to have your head on a swivel because conditions can change quickly. If the direction of the wind changes quickly, you have to be prepared to react immediately.”
The fire has been ripping through dry ponderosa pine, oak brush and grass.
“On a scale of one to five, I’d say it’s like a six,” Mr. Shell said, describing the combustible conditions. “It’s going to test our fire lines to the maximum.”
Scott Overpeck, a Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque, said there was not much relief in the forecast, with only a few storms expected on Sunday.
“We really need the rainfall to really solve the problems,” Mr. Overpeck said. “But if we can just get a break in the winds, a break in the humidity levels, that will allow fire operations and firefighters to contain the fires.”
Weather is not the only factor feeding the fires: Global warming increases the likelihood of drought.
As temperatures rise, soil and vegetation become parched, creating more kindling for wildfires. Climate change can also affect precipitation patterns around the world, making dry areas even drier.
In an effort to prevent more wildfires, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico on Monday signed an executive order urging the state’s municipalities and counties to ban the sale of fireworks.
Her office noted that, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, over 70 percent of New Mexico has been experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions.
“Fire conditions across New Mexico remain extremely dangerous — it’s essential that we mitigate potential wildfires by removing as much risk as possible,” Ms. Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
Even as parts of the Southwest confronted dangerously dry weather, a strong storm over the Central Plains, which includes Kansas and Nebraska, had increased the risk of severe thunderstorms over the Central and Southern Plains through Saturday morning, the Weather Service said.
These thunderstorms could bring lightning, strong wind gusts, tornadoes and hail measuring two inches or larger, the service said. On Saturday, the threat of severe thunderstorms was expected to move eastward to the Western Ohio Valley, threatening that area with lightning, wind gusts, hail and tornadoes.