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Forecasters in New Mexico are warning of worsening fire conditions this weekend, with gusts expected to pick up as firefighters attempt to contain wildfires that have been burning unusually hot and fast for weeks.

Much of the state is under either extreme or exceptional drought conditions, the two worst levels, which have turned parts of the state into a tinderbox. The National Weather Service in Albuquerque issued a red flag warning across much of the eastern part of the state for Sunday, after high winds Friday fueled large fires in the region.

Winds in the region were expected to pick up to 20 to 30 mph Sunday, with gusts as high as 45 mph, said Chuck Jones, a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. Those winds could help the fire spread more quickly, pushing flames into tree canopies or blowing embers.

Southwest drought is the most extreme in 1,200 years, study finds

New Mexico has already seen more fire damage in the first four months of 2022 than all of last year. Already, 199 fires have burned 187,477 acres in the state this year, according to data from the Southwest Coordination Center. New Mexico officials have warned of a long and dangerous fire season, as it is unusual to have so many fires burning this early in the year.

Gusts as high as 60 mph Friday fueled the severe Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak Fires, expanding the blaze by more than 30,000 acres in a single day and forcing residents in nearby areas to evacuate. The U.S. Forest Service reported that the area would see lingering smoke conditions Saturday. A government website projected “extreme fire behavior” in the area for the next 72 hours, in part due to the high winds.

During a briefing Saturday afternoon, officials said they were working to contain the fire from the south using aircraft.

“There’s a lot of fuel, and there’s no natural features that would stop the fire if it started moving aggressively,” said Jayson Coil, an operations section chief for a Southwest incident management team. “It’s going to be a matter of seeing how well we do, versus how much energy that fire puts out. It’s a bit of a race right now.”

As of Saturday afternoon, more than 1,000 firefighters had been deployed to fight those fires, which consumed more than 97,000 acres and were 32 percent contained, according to a government website. Officials deployed multiple scooper planes and helicopters Saturday to attempt to further contain the fires.

California, which itself is experiencing a historically severe drought, is deploying firefighters to New Mexico to help contain the blazes.

“Please abide by evacuation orders and listen to local officials when they say you need to go now — buildings can be replaced, but you can’t,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday morning.

State Rep. Roger Montoya, a Democrat representing some of the northeast counties affected by the fires, shared images of the destruction Friday on Twitter.

In addition to damaging winds, the National Weather Service is forecasting possible large hail and a tornado across eastern New Mexico on Sunday.

Other regions in the Southwest and Plains were bracing for similar conditions. The National Weather Service in Pueblo warned of “critical fire weather conditions” Sunday across much of south central Colorado.

Dangerous fire-weather conditions again targeting Southwest and Plains

Lujan Grisham said Friday that the state had been granted federal disaster aid for multiple fires in the state, including Hermit’s Peak.

Rising temperatures from human-induced climate change are increasing the risk of wildfires, scientists have found, as vegetation dries out more quickly and provides more fuel.

Climate Central, a nonprofit science communications organization, reported last year that the number of “fire weather” days has increased in parts of New Mexico, Texas and Southern California since the 1970s. The organization analyzed days with relatively low humidity, hotter temperatures and wind between 1973 and 2020.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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