Wind-whipped flames raced across pine-covered mountainsides in the US state of New Mexico on Monday, forcing residents to flee their homes and leading to the evacuation of the state’s psychiatric hospital.
Hundreds of households in an historic city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains were told to evacuate immediately as intense winds and bone-dry conditions fuelled the huge wildfire burning on the outskirts of town.
The blaze, dubbed the Calf Canyon Wildfire, had scorched more than 41,682 hectares (102,998 acres), or more than half the area of New York City, as of Monday morning, according to United States Forest Service officials in New Mexico.
It was 30 percent contained as of Monday as it burned drought-parched vegetation northwest of the city of Las Vegas, home to 13,000 people.
“We’re trying to house and feed people with skeleton crews. Hundreds of people have lost their homes. It’s an extraordinary tragedy,” said Allen Affeldt, who owns a hotel in Las Vegas.
The fire, the largest active US wildfire right now, is one of a dozen blazes now burning in the southwestern United States. Scientists say wildfires are more widespread and arriving earlier this year due to climate change.
More than 3,100 wildland firefighters and support personnel were fighting fires across the country, with about one-third of them trying to prevent the big blaze in New Mexico from spreading.
“It is extremely smoked out here. Lots of smoke and falling ash,” Jesus Romero, the deputy county manager of San Miguel County, told the Reuters news agency in an interview.
“The winds are starting to pick up now and we are starting to get a lot more wind.”
Forecasters issued a red flag warning for the area, signalling that fires could start and spread easily, amid winds of 80kph (50mph) and humidity as low as five percent expected through Monday.