Wildfires merge in New Mexico, threatening rural villages

A strong wind over the weekend doubled both fires in size

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Maggie Mulligan said her dogs could sense the panic while she and her husband packed them up, agonized over having to leave horses behind and fled a fast-moving wildfire barreling toward their home in northeast New Mexico.

"We don’t know what’s next," she said. "We don’t know if we can go back to the horses."

Mulligan and her husband, Bill Gombas, 67, were among the anxious residents who hurriedly packed up and evacuated their homes Friday ahead of ominous Western wildfires fueled by tinder-dry conditions and ferocious winds. 

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, fallen trees smolder after a wildfire at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Winds are expected to intensify through the end of the week as firefighters battle blazes across the Southwest. Resources are tight, and fire managers are scrambling to get crews on board. 

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, fallen trees smolder after a wildfire at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Winds are expected to intensify through the end of the week as firefighters battle blazes across the Southwest. Resources are tight, and fire managers are scrambling to get crews on board.  (Richard Ullmann/National Park Service via AP)

Over a dozen sizable fires were burning in Arizona and New Mexico, destroying dozens of homes and as of Saturday burning more than 174 square miles (451 square kilometers).

Winds that howled Friday remained a concern on Saturday in northern New Mexico where two fires merged and quadrupled in size to a combined 66 square miles (171 square kilometers) in mountains and grassland northwest of Las Vegas.

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The merged fires burned some structures but no figures were available, said fire information officer Mike Johnson. "They were able to save some structures and we know we lost other structures that we weren’t able to defend." 

This Wednesday April 20, 2022, photo provided by Bill Wells shows his home on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Ariz., destroyed by a wildfire on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. The wind-whipped wildfire has forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes and animals. 

This Wednesday April 20, 2022, photo provided by Bill Wells shows his home on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Ariz., destroyed by a wildfire on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. The wind-whipped wildfire has forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes and animals.  (Bill Wells via AP)

Wind-blown clouds of dust and plumes of smoke obscured the skies near the fires, said Jesus Romero, assistant county manager for San Miguel County. "All the ugliness that spring in New Mexico brings — that's what they're dealing in."

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, the remains of a ranger's game camera are held after the Tunnel Fire burned near the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Winds are expected to intensify through the end of the week as firefighters battle blazes across the Southwest. Resources are tight, and fire managers are scrambling to get crews on board. 

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, the remains of a ranger's game camera are held after the Tunnel Fire burned near the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Winds are expected to intensify through the end of the week as firefighters battle blazes across the Southwest. Resources are tight, and fire managers are scrambling to get crews on board.  (Richard Ullmann/National Park Service via AP)

An estimated 500 homes in San Miguel were in rural areas of Mora and San Miguel counties covered by evacuation orders or warning notices, Romero said.

Elsewhere in the region, the fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest it had been in over a decade, according to the National Weather Service, because of unseasonable temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.

In Arizona, a Flagstaff-area fire burned 30 homes and numerous other buildings when the flames blew through rural neighborhoods Tuesday.

A shift in wind had crews working Saturday to keep the fire from moving up mountain slopes or toward homes in rural neighborhoods near areas that burned Tuesday, fire information officer Dick Fleishman said. "It has got us a little concerned."

In northern New Mexico, winds on Friday gusted up to 75 mph (120 kph), shrouding the Rio Grande Valley with dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north.

Resource Advisors from the Coconino National Forest record data in Division Alpha as they work to determine the severity of Tunnel Fires impact on the Forest, Thursday, April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz. The San Francisco Peaks in background show the effects of the 2010 Schultz Fire. 

Resource Advisors from the Coconino National Forest record data in Division Alpha as they work to determine the severity of Tunnel Fires impact on the Forest, Thursday, April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz. The San Francisco Peaks in background show the effects of the 2010 Schultz Fire.  (Tom Story/Northern Arizona Type 3 Incident Management Team, via AP)

A wall of smoke stretched from wilderness just east of Santa Fe about 50 miles (80 km) to the northeast where ranchers and other rural inhabitants were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement.

Mulligan, 68, of Ledoux, a dog breeder, said her dog Liam "was a nervous wreck" when a sheriff came to their house Friday afternoon and told them they had to leave.

They packed nine dogs and five puppies into an SUV and an old blue Cadillac. They considered dropping the horses off at a local fairgrounds, but they decided it was in the same path of the burning fire as their home and more likely to burn.

"There’s water in their pasture, and there’s hay. So we’ll see what happens," Mulligan said.

Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in the nearby Rociada area for five generations, got out Friday as winds kicked up. She said most people were taking the threat seriously.

A member of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management Phoenix Crew dig at burning roots as another crew member searches for smoke in Division Alpha of the Tunnel Fire while looking for hot spots, Thursday, April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz. 

A member of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management Phoenix Crew dig at burning roots as another crew member searches for smoke in Division Alpha of the Tunnel Fire while looking for hot spots, Thursday, April 21, 2022 near Flagstaff, Ariz.  (Tom Story/Northern Arizona Type 3 Incident Management Team, via AP)

"As a community, as a whole, everybody is just pulling together to support each other and just take care of the things we need to now. And then at that point, it’s in God’s hands," she said as the wind howled miles away in the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where evacuees were gathering.

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Areas ordered Saturday to evacuate because of another large fire still growing in northern New Mexico included Philmont Scout Ranch. Meanwhile, the nearby town of Cimarron remained on notice for possible evacuation, according to Colfax County officials. 

Maria Elena Valdez, left, a volunteer at a fire evacuation shelter in northeast New Mexico, helps Maggie Mulligan, center, and Brad Gombas walk and water nine of their dogs outside the shelter Friday, April 22, 2022, in Las Vegas, N.M. Mulligan and Gombas, of rural Ledoux fled their ranch but had to leave their horses behind and they're not sure when the can back. Mulligan, a dog breeder, had 5 puppies in the back of her SUV.

Maria Elena Valdez, left, a volunteer at a fire evacuation shelter in northeast New Mexico, helps Maggie Mulligan, center, and Brad Gombas walk and water nine of their dogs outside the shelter Friday, April 22, 2022, in Las Vegas, N.M. Mulligan and Gombas, of rural Ledoux fled their ranch but had to leave their horses behind and they're not sure when the can back. Mulligan, a dog breeder, had 5 puppies in the back of her SUV. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

The scout ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no scouts were on the property and staff were previously evacuated because of poor air quality.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.

Plumes of smoke rise from a pair of growing wildfires in northeast New Mexico on Friday, April 22, 2022 outside Las Vegas, N.M.. Southwest fires have burned dozens of homes in northern Arizona and put numerous small villages in New Mexico in the path of danger. 

Plumes of smoke rise from a pair of growing wildfires in northeast New Mexico on Friday, April 22, 2022 outside Las Vegas, N.M.. Southwest fires have burned dozens of homes in northern Arizona and put numerous small villages in New Mexico in the path of danger.  (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Near the Flagstaff-area fire, Kelly Morgan was among neighbors at the edge of the evacuation zone who did not leave. She and her husband have lived through wildfires before, she said, and they are prepared if winds shift and flames race toward the home they moved into three years ago.

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"Unfortunately, it's not something new to us ... but I hate seeing it when people are affected the way they are right now," she said. "It's sad. It's a very sad time. But as a community, we've really come together."