Burning now for more than a month, the largest wildfire in the U.S. was spreading toward mountain resort towns in northern New Mexico on Wednesday, prompting officials to issue another set of warnings for more people to evacuate.
“Day 36,” fire spokesman Bill Morse said at a briefing Wednesday night. “Ever since April 6, this fire has grown day by day by day.”
Meanwhile, a wildfire that erupted Wednesday afternoon in coastal Southern California raced through coastal bluffs of multimillion-dollar mansions, burning at least 20 homes, fire officials said. The flames were fanned by gusty ocean winds but they were dying down Wednesday night. No injuries were reported but several streets were ordered evacuated.
The fire, which occurred in Laguna Niguel, was relatively small at about 200 acres (81 hectares) but the wind drove embers into palm trees, attics and dense, dry brush on slopes and steep canyons that hadn’t burned for decades, Brian Fennessy, chief of the Orange County Fire Authority, said at an evening news conference.
Fennessy said climate change has made even small fires that once would have been easily contained into extreme threats to life and property throughout the West.
As night fell, fire officials in New Mexico said the fastest-moving flames along the eastern front of the Sangre de Cristo range on the southern end of the Rockies were headed farther northeast — away from the area's biggest population center in Taos, a well-known tourist enclave 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of the Colorado line.
“Currently no issues in the Taos area," fire operations chief Todd Abel said. “The fire is kind of wanting to move to the north and east a little bit. But we’re still going to pay close attention.”
Some aircraft were able to fly to drop retardant on the blaze despite winds gusting in some areas in excess of 45 mph (72 kph). And some evacuation orders were relaxed along the southern flank of the fire near Las Vegas, New Mexico — more than 50 miles (80 km) south of the flames on the northern perimeter.
Additional crews were on order to join the more than 1,800 personnel fighting the fire, and forecasters said conditions should be more favorable by the weekend if crews can hold their ground through another red-flag warning stretch into Thursday evening.
On Wednesday, the most active part of the wind-fueled fire northeast of Mora was tossing hot embers farther into unburned territory giving the fire an even bigger foothold on the tinder-dry landscape.
“Another hot, dry, windy day. No surprises there,” fire incident meteorologist Makoto Moore said at Wednesday night's briefing in Las Vegas.
After growing more than 50 square miles (130 square kilometers) the day before, the fire had charred more than 370 square miles (958 square kilometers) by Wednesday morning. Evacuations were ordered for villages south of the resort town of Angel Fire east of Taos, where residents were told to also be packed and ready to go.
The towering plume of smoke created by the raging wildfire could be seen hundreds of miles away Wednesday afternoon, but it was more unnerving for residents of Taos.
“I think everyone is a little on edge,” Karina Armijo, a town spokeswoman, said Wednesday, adding that she's been busy fielding calls from people who are wondering whether it's still safe to visit. “It's hard to say what's going to happen a week from now versus three weeks from now — or even tomorrow.”
In winter, the challenging ski slopes just north of town draw people from around the world. Just last month, the Taos ski valley hosted the World Pro Ski Tour’s championship races. Art galleries, adobe churches and a rich history of Hispanic and Native American culture are the attractions in warmer months along with the aspen-covered biking and hiking trails that traverse the region.
The fire already has burned through a forested landscape held sacred by its rural residents, many losing homes that have been in their families for generations. Some residents allowed to return Tuesday and Wednesday found only charred rubble. Others were more fortunate as the flames skirted their homes.
Firefighters were working to protect buildings around the towns of Mora and Holman and in smaller villages to the north, while authorities closed many roads in the area due to firefighting activity, smoke and fire danger.
“This is tough firefighting business right here,” fire Incident Commander Dave Bales said in a briefing. “This is not easy, especially in the fuel types we're in, in the Ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, even down into the grass. When we can’t fly aircraft, when we can’t get people on the direct edge of the fire, when it’s spotting over us, that’s a huge concern for us.”
A federal disaster already has been declared because of the blaze, which is partly the result of a preventative fire that escaped containment on April 6 after it was set to clear brush and small trees so they could not serve as wildfire fuel. That fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later.
Crews also were battling a smaller fire near Los Alamos National Laboratory, a key government facility for nuclear research that has been tapped to ramp up production of plutonium components for the nation's nuclear arsenal. Most employees began working remotely this week as the lab and adjacent town prepared for possible evacuations as a precaution.
Crews working that blaze have been using heavy machinery to clear out vegetation and build more fire lines in hopes of keeping the flames from moving closer to the community.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno, Nevada.