Fierce winds drive wildfires in US Southwest

Plumes of smoke rise from a pair of growing wildfires in northeast New Mexico on April 22, 2022 outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. (CEDAR ATTANASIO / AP)

Howling winds pushed wildfires towards villages in northern New Mexico on Friday, forcing thousands to flee homes as blazes burned across the parched US Southwest.

Over a dozen small communities were evacuated as two wildfires merged in mountains around 48 km northeast of Santa Fe, driven by wind gusts of over 97 kph, according to local authorities.

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"It's heartbreaking, it's terrifying," said Joy Ansley, a spokeswoman for San Miguel County where the fires are burning. "We're not letting people back in once they come out, it's a very serious, a very grim situation."

Over a dozen small communities were evacuated as two wildfires merged in mountains around 48 km northeast of Santa Fe, driven by wind gusts of over 97 kph, according to local authorities

The so-called Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires combined about 19 km northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico, according to the Inciweb fire tracking site.

The blazes were among over a dozen burning across the US Southwest as a decades-long drought combined with abundant dry vegetation, raising concerns the region was in for a harsh fire year.

Rising temperatures have lowered winter snowpacks and allowed larger and more extreme fires to start earlier in the year, according to biologists. The prolonged drought has been intensified by human-caused climate change, according to climate scientists.

"New Mexico right now has multiple fires going, Arizona has multiple fires going, and that is abnormal for this early in the season," said Laura Rabon, a spokeswoman for the Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico where two people died in a blaze last week.

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Around 56 km east of Taos, New Mexico, the Cooks Peak fire exploded in size to threaten the Philmont Scout Ranch and village of Cimarron. Firefighers in Arizona began to contain the Tunnel fire near Flagstaff which has burned dozens of homes.