© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The Calf Canyon fire burns in mountains south of Mora, New Mexico, U.S. April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Andrew Hay
By Andrew Hay
MORA, N.M. (Reuters) – Thousands of people who live in mountain villages of northern New Mexico prepared to evacuate on Friday as gusting winds and drought conditions drove the largest wildfire in the United States perilously close to their homes.
About 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast of Santa Fe near the village of Ledoux, flames from the Calf Canyon fire ripped through forest as high winds blew embers over a mile, spreading a wildfire that has scorched about 66,000 acres, or 103 square miles, of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains since April 6.
“It’s been too dry, erratic winds, global warming, that’s what they say,” said Mora County Fire Administrator David Montoya as he stood by a fire engine, ready to put out so-called “spot fires” as embers landed in parched valley fields.
A couple of miles north in Mora, elevation 7,172 feet, Julie Finley feared winds could shift and push the blaze into the farming settlement, which dates back to the 1800s.
“It feels like your whole world is crashing,” said Finley as she chose a picture painted by her grandson among items to take with her as she evacuated. “We have seen so many friends lose everything.”
The blaze is the most destructive of dozens of wildfires that have burned in the U.S. Southwest this spring, normally a season when blazes are relatively rare. This year, the wildfires have started earlier than usual due to climate change, scientists say.
San Miguel County Commissioner Max Trujillo interrupted music on country station KBQL to urge locals to leave their homes if authorities called for evacuation.
“Today is about survival,” Trujillo said of the fire that has destroyed 166 houses but has yet to claim a life.
Extreme drought has dried logs and branches to 8% humidity, less than timber used for home construction, turning forested mountains and valleys into a potential tinderbox, according to fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner.
Nervous residents have lashed out at the U.S. Forest Service, which administers much of the area, for failing to thin trees or allow locals to log forest that is congested and fire prone.
“They’ve got to clean it out or we’re dead in the water,” said Skip Finley, a furniture restorer, as he prepared to leave his 1905 turquoise-and-cream territorial-style home in Mora.