Updated May 9, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Huge New Mexico wildfire swells as firefighters face "dire" weather event

Satellite image showing wildfire smoke in New Mexico on May 3, 2022.
Satellite view of wildfire smoke from the Calf Canyon Fire and others burning in New Mexico on May 3, 2022. (NASA)

New Mexico's second-largest wildfire on record is continuing to spread and trigger more evacuations, as the state faces a "dire and critical to extreme fire weather event," per the National Weather Service.

Why it matters: High winds, low humidity and near-record heat are combining to make already difficult conditions for firefighters even harder, amid long-term and dangerous drought conditions that ignited new blazes, which rapidly spread over the weekend.

Threat level: The Southwest is in the midst of its most severe and extended drought in at least 1,200 years. Studies show this drought is tied to human-caused climate change.

  • "The major weather story on Monday will be the continued critical fire weather concerns in the Four Corners region with extreme threats in New Mexico," the National Weather Service said.
  • A "long duration" red flag warning was in effect for much of New Mexico through Monday due to "very strong winds, several hours of single digit humidity, above average warmth as well as unstable atmosphere," the NWS office in Albuquerque stated on its website.

The big picture: President Biden has approved an N.M. disaster declaration, enabling federal aid to flow to the state to help recoup firefighting costs and help thousands of evacuated residents unable to return to their homes.

  • Biden's declaration, which came last Wednesday following a request from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), makes federal funding available to affected residents in the fire-ravaged counties of Colfax, Mora, San Miguel, and Valencia.

Context: The Calf Canyon wildfire has grown to almost 176,300 acres at 41% containment, fire officials told the Washington Post on Sunday. Several blazes were burning across the state, including five other large wildfires.

  • The volatile conditions were affecting other parched southwestern states this weekend too, including Arizona and parts of Colorado, which saw a devastating wildfire strike Boulder County in late December and numerous wildfires since.
  • In New Mexico, the total acres burned so far this year is about equal to the seasonal average, and it is only early May. Relief may come in late May or June with rains from the Southwest monsoon.

Between the lines: The hot, dry airmass affecting New Mexico is in the midst of expanding northward and eastward, with an unusually early season heat wave enveloping Texas and Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, above normal temperatures are forecast to persist in N.M. into midweek, with "very unstable conditions" expected to lead to "rapid and potentially catastrophic fire spread and growth," according to the NWS Albuquerque.

  • "While winds are expected to decrease in speed some Monday evening, gusty winds will redevelop over much of the eastern half of New Mexico on Tuesday, leading to another round of critical fire weather conditions," the NWS added.
  • The weather system is expected to move toward the Central states and Midwest by the middle of this week.

By the numbers: Locations in Texas hit or exceeded the mid-90s over the weekend, with some areas exceeding the triple-digits.

  • Numerous daily high temperature records fell amid critical fire weather conditions — including in San Antonio and Amarillo, Texas, which both hit 101 degrees on Saturday, while Abilene, Del Rio and San Angelo reached a historic 107 degrees.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout. Rebecca Falconer contributed to this report.

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