MORA, N.M. – Nearly 3,000 firefighters in New Mexico kept the nation's largest active wildfire from growing on Monday as they took advantage of cooler weather before the return of more dangerous conditions later in the week.
“Overall, a good day,” fire operations chief Alex McBath said Monday night. “Everything stayed within the fire lines.”
Firefighters also expanded contingency firebreaks northeast of Santa Fe as forecasters warned that hotter, windier weather will return by Friday.
“Just because we’ve had a few good days of weather ... it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said Monday night.
The blaze that started nearly seven weeks ago in the Rocky Mountains foothills southeast of Santa Fe remained just 40% contained Monday. It started as two fires and burned into one large conflagration now larger than the city of Los Angeles.
Flames have consumed more than 484 square miles (1,253 square kilometers) of timber, grassland and brush and evacuations have been in place for weeks.
However, evacuation orders were relaxed in many areas and stretches of highway reopened south of Taos.
Along with cooler temperatures, fire crews were helped over the weekend by water-dropping helicopters and aircraft. Rising humidity was expected to help add moisture to the bone-dry fuels on forest floors for a few more days, forecasters said.
However, “by Friday we're back to the same old critical fire weather that we have been experiencing for many, many days,” said Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst for the U.S. Forest Service.
Also on Monday, the U.S. Forest Service released a survey of vegetation and soil damage across 118 square miles ( 465 square kilometer) of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that burned in recent weeks, including public and private land.
About one-fifth of the area experienced high-severity burning that can lead to heavy and even dangerous erosion. Trees in those areas will take many years to recover without planting.
The fire is among five active large fires in the state and among 14 nationally, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The New Mexico fire accounts for nearly 60% of the 536 square miles (1,388 square kilometers) consumed by wildfires in the U.S. so far this year.
Wildfires have broken out this spring in multiple states in the western U.S., where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires. The number of square miles burned so far this year is far above the 10-year national average.
Fire crews continued to make progress toward cordoning off a wildfire on the outskirts of a U.S. national security research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
That fire in the wooded Jemez Mountains was 85% encircled by clearings and barriers that can stop a wildfire from spreading further, U.S. authorities said.
Bandelier National Monument announced plans to partially reopen its reserve for ancestral Native American settlements and culture to the public Friday after a weekslong closure. Campgrounds, backcountry areas and some trails will remain off-limits.
In southwestern New Mexico, a fire that is burning through portions of the Gila National Forest triggered new evacuations on Sunday in rural areas, as emergency crews labored to protect homes and outbuildings from advancing flames. That fire has burned across 230 square miles (595 square kilometers) of forest and scrubland and continues to grow.