New Mexico firefighters battle United States' largest active wildfire, 145 thousand acres go up in smoke

Updated: May 18, 2022, 12:26 PM(IST)

Thousands of residents of a historic Old West town in New Mexico face evacuation as fierce winds drove the largest active US wildfire through drought-parched forests.

Let's take a look:

145,000 acres lost

The Calf Canyon fire has so far burned 145,000 acres (58,679 hectares), an area more the size of Albuquerque, and is the largest of a dozen Southwest blazes that scientists have said are more widespread and arriving earlier this year due to climate change.

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The destruction

Burning since April 6 around 30 miles (48 km) east of Santa Fe, the fire has destroyed more than 300 properties and forced the evacuation of dozens of villages and settlements in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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Keeping the loved ones safe

People in the west of Las Vegas, New Mexico packed bags and kept family members close after the fire burned within 5 miles (8 km) of their homes near interstate highway 25, according to local officials and fire authorities.

Crews bulldozed firebreaks to the west and north of the city of 14,000 to protect ranches, rural houses and the United World College in the village of Montezuma, fire official Todd Abel told a briefing.

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Smoke everywhere

William Sandoval, a 40 year resident of Chacon, said the fire smoke was quickly enveloping the area around his house when authorities knocked on his door, telling him to evacuate.

"I got up in the morning at 6 and, at that time, the smoke was still miles away," Sandoval said, while holding his dog Copper at a high school gym converted into an evacuation center. "By 9 o'clock, 9:30, the smoke in the valley was so thick you needed a butter knife to cut through it. It came on really fast and, at that point, that's when the law enforcement came by to tell us to get out."

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The fight to keep it from spreading

The greatest wildfire in the US is being fought by over 1,000 firefighters aided by bulldozers and aircrafts.

According to Mike Johnson, a spokesperson with the fire management team, ash from the fire has fallen 7 miles or 11 kilometres through the air in Las Vegas.

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Rapid spread

Officials said mapping imagery showed the fire rose in size from Friday's 103 square miles (266 square kilometres) to 152 square miles (393 square kilometres) by early Saturday. During a briefing Saturday evening, the fire was classified as 30 percent contained.

However, fire authorities warned that windy conditions and smoke are predicted in the following days, and residents were encouraged to stay alert for any additional evacuation orders.

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US wildfires increase in frequency and damage

US wildfires have burned more than twice as much land this year as in the same period of 2021, and about 70 per cent more than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

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A game of chess

Fire chiefs were busy plotting their next move and seeking for locations where they might scoop up fuel ahead of the fire, starving it of additional timber and brush, as if they were playing chess.

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Presidential disaster declaration

Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico, has requested a presidential disaster declaration, saying she hopes it will bring financial assistance to the state's recovery efforts. 

The number of properties burned by the fire is estimated to be approximately 170, but the governor warned the number will certainly rise once officials are able to assess the damage.

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Fire predicted to move towards Las Vegas

The fire spread to 250 square miles (647 square kilometres) overnight, with control at 20 per cent of the perimeter. The fire was predicted to move toward Las Vegas on Wednesday due to strong winds. The heavy smoke and noise from planes battling the fire were frightening at times, according to Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo, but he sought to reassure residents that firefighters were working hard.

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