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Wind and drought combine to make western US fires unstoppable

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A firefighter works to extinguish a burning structure during a wildfire Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Laguna Niguel, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio J. Sanchez)

PA

Flames from a wildfire in northern New Mexico have grown unstoppable as the largest blaze in the United States scorches trees sucked in by moisture during decades of drought amid a Thursday forecast of windy that are expected to fan the blaze, according to wildfire officials.

Meanwhile, Southern California winds sent embers through the coastal community of Laguna Niguel on Wednesday. More than 20 homes were destroyed, many of which were multi-million dollar mansions. No injuries were reported.

The California fire was much smaller than the New Mexico blaze which burned at least 170 homes, but Orange County Fire Authority chief Brian Fennessy said drought and climate change combined to make fires that were once easy to contain extremely dangerous to people and property

From New Mexico to Colorado and parts of the Midwest, forecasters Thursday issued red flag warnings of extreme wildfire danger due to low humidity levels, erratic winds and hot temperatures. The same combination of weather conditions has contributed to much worse than normal spring wildfires in the United States over the past month.

In New Mexico, the fastest blazes in the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountains were heading northeast and away from the region’s largest population center, Taos, a popular tourist destination 64 kilometers south of the border with Colorado.

Winds made it difficult for planes to fly to help firefighters on the ground, but some planes managed to drop retardant on the blaze on Wednesday despite gusting winds in some areas above 45 mph (72 kph) .

Some evacuation orders have been relaxed along the southern flank of the fire near the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Additional crews were expected to join the more than 1,800 people battling the New Mexico blaze, and forecasters said weather conditions were expected to improve on Friday.

The fire has already scorched a forest landscape held sacred by its rural residents, many of whom have lost homes that have belonged to their families for generations. Some evacuated residents who were allowed to return home on Tuesday and Wednesday found only charred rubble. Others had better luck as the flames skirted their homes.

Officials have predicted the number of homes scorched by the fire will rise significantly when it is safe for officials to make assessments of areas that are still smoldering.

Crews were also battling a small fire in New Mexico near Los Alamos National Laboratory, a key government facility for nuclear research that was operated to ramp up production of plutonium components for the US nuclear arsenal.

Most employees began working remotely this week as the lab and residents of the city of Los Alamos prepared for possible evacuations.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno, Nevada.