Wildfires have burned dozens of homes in northern Arizona and are threatening several small villages in New Mexico as part of a “very chaotic situation” in the US south-west, according to an expert.
More than 1,600 firefighters are battling six blazes in New Mexico and three in Arizona that have consumed more than 100 square miles of timber and brush.
Just east of Santa Fe, New Mexico, ranchers and other rural inhabitants have been abruptly told to leave by law enforcement as tinder-dry conditions and ferocious winds fuel the flames.
Fires are also were burning in Colorado, where new evacuations were ordered west of Colorado Springs.
With no air support or crews working directly on the fire lines, there was explosive growth in the size and number of new small fires in the region on Friday.
Fire behaviour analyst Stewart Turner said: “It’s a very chaotic situation out there.”
During a briefing Friday night on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, he added: “We’ve had extreme fire behaviour all day.”
Firefighters working to keep more homes from burning on the edge of a mountain town in northern Arizona were helped by snow, scattered showers and cooler temperatures early on Friday, but the favourable weather did not last.
While sustained winds are forecast to ease a bit, more gusts were expected to batter parts of Arizona and all of New Mexico through the weekend.
The fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest it had been in over a decade, according to the US National Weather Service, because of unseasonable temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.
At one of the biggest fires near Flagstaff, Arizona, where 30 homes and numerous other buildings have been destroyed, authorities said they had used sirens on Thursday night to warn residents to flee evacuation areas, but howling winds had muffled the alarms.
By Friday, afternoon winds were gusting up to 75mph in northern New Mexico near the Colorado line, shrouding the Rio Grande Valley with dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north.
A wall of smoke stretched from wilderness just east of Santa Fe about 50 miles to the north-east, where ranchers and other rural inhabitants were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement.
Another wind-whipped fire in north-eastern New Mexico also also forced evacuations. The town of Cimarron and the headquarters of the Philmont Scout Ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, were preparing to flee if necessary.
The scout ranch attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no scouts were on the property.
New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.
In Arizona, flames had raced through rural areas outside Flagstaff just days earlier. A break in the weather on Thursday allowed helicopters to drop water on the blaze and authorities to survey the damage.
They found 30 homes and numerous other buildings were destroyed, with sheriff’s officials saying over 100 properties were affected. That fire has burned close to 32 square miles and forced the evacuations of 765 homes after starting last Sunday.