FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — 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.
Firefighters working to keep more homes from burning on the edge of a mountain town in northern Arizona were helped by 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.
The wind howled across New Mexico on Friday afternoon, shrouding the Rio Grande Valley with a blanket of dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north. Fire officials expected one blaze burning northeast of Santa Fe to overrun several communities by the end of the day.
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“With the dry conditions, high temperatures, extreme winds and limited suppression ability, the fire is traveling very quickly and it is imperative that residents comply with evacuation orders,” authorities said in a warning issued Friday afternoon.
Neighbors spent the night helping one another pack belongings and load their horses and other animals into trailers to escape approaching flames. The rural area is home to several hundred people, but many residences are unoccupied as families have yet to arrive for summer.
Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in the Rociada area for five generations, got out Friday as the winds kicked up. She said people were taking the threat seriously and there was a lot of traffic on roads overnight as people were evacuating.
“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. “We just have to wait and see what happens.”
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The predictions of fire managers were coming true: With no air support or crews working directly on the fire lines, there was explosive growth. Gusts of 55-65 mph (88-104 kph) are being recorded.
San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez called it a very dangerous situation. Evacuation centers had been set up and several roads were closed.
Another wind-whipped fire burning in the northeastern corner of New Mexico also was forcing evacuations while residents in the town of Cimarron and the headquarters of the Philmont Scout Ranch, which is owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, were preparing to flee if necessary. The scout ranch attracts thousands of visitors every summer, but officials there said no scouts were on the property.
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In Arizona, flames had raced through rural neighborhoods near Flagstaff just days earlier. It wasn’t until Thursday that a break in the weather allowed helicopters to drop water on the blaze and authorities to enter the charred area to survey the damage. They found 30 homes and numerous other buildings had been destroyed, with sheriff’s deputies saying more than 100 properties were affected.
That fire has burned close to 32 square miles (83 square kilometers), forced evacuations of 765 homes and destroyed at least two dozen structures since it broke out on Sunday.
Smaller spot fires threatened to run up mountainous areas overlooking those neighborhoods. If that happens, any rainfall in the area could magnify flooding.
The wind is expected to be lighter over the weekend but fire officials say they’re concerned about wind shifts that could push the blaze back onto neighborhoods that have already burned and expand into new ones.
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“The lines have been staying really well with the way the winds are going,” said Monica Whicker, who evacuated her home Tuesday. “We have a lot of friends on the other side of the line that are on ‘set,’ so we worry about them, too.”
Authorities used sirens and alarms overnight Thursday in the evacuation area to warn residents who haven’t left that now’s the time, said sheriff’s spokesman Jon Paxton. The alarms were somewhat drowned out by the howling wind.
Evacuations near Flagstaff were expected to remain in place until at least Sunday.
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.
Colorado saw its most destructive wildfire last winter, when flames tore through two densely populated Denver suburbs, and this year’s outlook is not good. Warmer weather and a lack of rain are expected to put the eastern half of the state at “above average significant fire potential” before higher risk spread statewide in June, fire officials said in their annual wildfire plan released Friday.
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. It warned people to have a bag ready in case they needed to evacuate.
Firefighters earlier this week stopped blazes before they grew very large although one destroyed or damaged an estimated 15 buildings in the rural community of Monte Vista.
In Arizona, popular lakes and national monuments have closed — some because the wildfire moved directly over them. Wupatki National Monument is in the fire’s path.
Forest officials also have closed areas in both New Mexico and Arizona where blazes are burning, and some local, state and federal land managers have imposed either burn bans or fire restrictions in hopes of preventing more fires.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.