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‘Like An Inferno:’ The American West Is Burning Fast So Far

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. (AP) — Wildfires are at a furious pace earlier this year — from a California hillside where mansions with multimillion-dollar views of the Pacific Ocean were set ablaze to the remote New Mexico mountains charred by a month-old monster fire.

The two places couldn’t be more different, but the common elements are the same: wind-driven flames ripped through extraordinarily dry vegetation due to a years-long drought exacerbated by climate change.

As the unstoppable northern New Mexico wildfire swept through denser forest on Thursday, firefighters in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel doused the charred, smoldering remains of 20 large homes that quickly burst into flames and forced a frantic evacuation.

“The sky, everything was orange. It felt like hell so we just jumped in the car,” Sassan Darian said, recounting his escape with his daughter and father as embers swirled around them. “My daughter said, ‘We’re on fire.’ There were sparkles on her and we were patting each other.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year — the most so far since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The forecast for the rest of the spring does not bode well for the West, with drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change increasing the danger of wildfires.

“We all know it’s very early for our fire season and we’re all in awe of what we’ve been through…so far,” said Dave Bales, New Mexico fire commander who is the biggest fire in the world. WE

Reddened by smoke from a wildfire, the sun reflects off the windows of the train station in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Saturday, May 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Fire officials said there was little they could do in recent days to stop fast-moving flames burning in the dry tinder forests of the Sangre de Christo range.

Fed by overgrown mountainsides blanketed in ponderosa pines and other trees sucked in by moisture for decades, it is now scorched over more than 405 square miles (1,048 square kilometers) – an area larger than the city of Dallas, Texas.

Crews battling the blazes along the mountain fronts between Santa Fe and Taos mostly held off Thursday with welcome help from air strikes. But fire operations chief Todd Abel said in some places where the winds were blowing over the ridges, it was “almost like putting a hair dryer on it”.

Even small fires that once would have been easily contained are extreme threats to life and property due to climate change, said Orange County Fire Authority chief Brian Fennessy.

The perfect example erupted on Wednesday afternoon when flames that could have been started by electrical equipment were pushed into a canyon by strong sea breezes and quickly ignited large homes. They burned a relatively small area – about 200 acres (81 hectares) – but left a wide path of destruction.

A sprawling estate sold for $9.9 million had looked like a California dream in real estate listings: brimming with luxuries that included a two-level library, a ‘wellness wing’ with sauna and steam room, and a pool on a terrace overlooking scenic Laguna Beach.

By nightfall, the mansion once pictured against a pastel sunset had turned into a nightmare: its arched facade silhouetted against a bright yellow sky as firefighters raised their hoses on the sunken structure.

After the large flames were extinguished on Thursday, the house was one of many smoking victims marked off with yellow tape. In another driveway, a burnt-out car was resting on its rims. The surrounding steep hillsides were blackened and stripped of vegetation.

Many other homes emerged unscathed, and palm trees that had survived the onslaught of embers swayed overhead in calmer winds.

Two firefighters were hospitalized but no other injuries were reported.

The cause of the fire was under investigation and damage inspections were still ongoing Thursday, Orange County Fire Authority Deputy Chief TJ McGovern said. Southern California Edison reported that unspecified “electrical circuit activity” occurred as the fire broke out late Wednesday afternoon.

Electric utility equipment has been repeatedly linked to starting some of California’s most disastrous wildfires, especially during windy weather.

Last year, the state Utilities Commission approved a settlement of more than half a billion dollars in fines and penalties for SoCal Edison for its role in five wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

‘Like An Inferno:’ The American West Is Burning Fast So Far
A vehicle drives away from a plume of smoke from the Cerro Pelado Fire burning in the Jemez Mountains Friday, April 29, 2022 in Cochiti, NM. (Robert Browman // The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

In New Mexico, another red flag warning was set to end Friday evening for the first time in a week, but extremely low humidity and dry fuels will continue to provide ample opportunity for the flames to spread, officials said.

“This fire will continue to grow,” Bales, the incident commander, warned Thursday night.

Residents of four counties east and northeast of Santa Fe remained under various evacuation orders and alerts, and fire officials expected the blaze to continue on a northeast path east of Taos through less populated areas about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of the Colorado Line.

With strong spring winds tossing embers into unburned territory, the fire has spread across tens of square miles daily since early April 6, when a prescribed burn intended to clear brush and small trees – to prevent future fires – got out of control. This fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later.

The blaze has so far burned more than 170 homes, but authorities said that number is expected to rise significantly as more assessments are carried out and residents are allowed to return home to areas deemed safe.

The New Mexico fire has scorched mostly rural areas that include a mix of scattered ranch homes, historic Hispanic villages that date back centuries, and high-priced summer cabins. Some of the herding and farming families who have called the area home for generations have spoken at length about the sanctity of the landscape, while many others have been too heartbroken to express what they have lost.

Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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