Other New Mexico residents warned they may have to flee the fire

LAS VEGAS, NM — Firefighters in the New Mexico foothills of the Rocky Mountains prepared Monday to dig new firebreaks and clear brush to create more lines of defense aimed at preventing a massive wildfire from destroying more homes and cinder-dry pine forests .

The largest blaze in the US has burned down about 300 homes and leapt across a freeway late Sunday – entrenching itself in harsh areas difficult for firefighters to reach and prompting a warning to more rural villagers to prepare for one prepare for a quick escape.

Another wildfire in New Mexico in the mountains surrounding one of the federal government’s key nuclear research facilities prompted Los Alamos National Laboratory and community officials to prepare for possible evacuations. Officials stressed there was no emergency, but the fire was about 3 miles from the lab and growing.

“If you don’t need to be at work, it’s time to prepare to telecommute,” lab director Thom Mason told employees in a video. “Conditions can change quickly, it’s been very dry, very windy and we have to respect that risk and be prepared for what’s next.”

The gusty winds, which have made extinguishing work difficult over the past few days, did not abate on Monday. Winds have fueled the fires in New Mexico with only brief interruptions for weeks, and the recent spate of consecutive days of extremely dangerous wildfire conditions is unprecedented, weather forecasters said.

Nearly 1,700 firefighters battled the largest blaze that burned northeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has charred more than 296 square miles (766 square kilometers), an area almost the size of New York City. After fighting it for nearly a month, firefighters had contained almost half the blaze by Monday, an achievement that operations director Todd Abel said was significant given the challenges crews were facing.

The area’s largest population center — Las Vegas, New Mexico, home to 13,000 people — was declared largely safe from burns after firefighters mostly stopped the blaze on that front. But thousands of people living in smaller, more remote communities were still under evacuation orders.

The wildfire’s northern and southern flanks have proved more difficult to contain as wind gusts topped 80 km/h (50 mph) over the weekend. Officials as of Monday morning had not yet determined whether it would be safe enough to launch planes to help with the firefighting effort.

The planes are used to drop water directly onto flames or to apply fire suppressant ahead of the expected direction of the fire to allow bulldozers and ground crew to dig firebreaks in locations where there are no roads to act as firebreaks.

The National Interagency Fire Center said more than 20,000 buildings in New Mexico were threatened by the fire.

Authorities urged residents of small villages on the north front of the fire late Sunday to evacuate and said it was rapidly approaching after leaping across a road.

People who wait too long to leave could face life-threatening situations as they flee due to heavy smoke and congested roads, said Dave Bales, the chief of operations for the team fighting the fire.

This type of scenario makes the smoke “so thick you can’t see anything, you can’t drive, you can’t see the engine in front of you,” he said.

The threatened communities are located along a state highway that runs from Las Vegas, New Mexico to the Taos Ski and Recreation Area. Taos itself was not threatened, but people in some parts of Taos County were told to prepare for possible evacuations.

Three new major fires were reported nationwide over the weekend — two in Arizona and one in Texas.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Monday that a dozen uncontained major fires have burned more than 500 square miles in four states so far this year. Ten of these large fires and nearly all of the acres burned are in New Mexico and Arizona.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West, and they’re moving faster and burning hotter than ever because of climate change, scientists and fire experts said.

Firefighters have also said many forest areas have become overgrown and unhealthy and that vegetation build-up can worsen wildfire conditions.

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Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California. Associated Press reporters Scott Sonner of Reno, Nevada and Susan Montoya Bryan of Albuquerque, New Mexico contributed to this report.

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