FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Maggie Mulligan said her dogs could smell the panic as she and her husband packed them up and fled a rapidly moving wildfire toward their home in northeastern New Mexico while that they were dying of having to leave their horses behind.
“We don’t know what’s next,” she said. “We don’t know if we can go back to the horses.”
Mulligan and her husband, Bill Gombas, 67, were among anxious residents who quickly packed their bags and evacuated their homes on Friday ahead of ominous western wildfires fueled by dry conditions and fierce winds.
More than 1,600 firefighters were battling nine different large blazes in Arizona and New Mexico that have destroyed dozens of homes and burned more than 100 square miles (258 square kilometers) in flames.
Fires were also burning in Colorado, where new evacuations were ordered west of Colorado Springs on Friday. But there were no immediate reports of lost structures.
With no air support or crews working directly on the lines of fire, there was an explosive growth in the size and number of new small fires across the southwestern United States on Friday.
“It’s a very chaotic situation out there,” Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst, said during a Friday night briefing at the edge of New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest. “We had extreme fire behavior all day.”
Firefighters struggling to keep more homes from burning on the outskirts of a northern Arizona mountain town were helped by snow, scattered showers and cooler temperatures early Friday. But the favorable weather did not last. While the sustained winds are expected to ease a little, more gusts are expected to hit parts of Arizona and all of New Mexico throughout the weekend.
Fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest in more than a decade, according to the National Weather Service, due to unusual temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.
In one of the biggest blazes near Flagstaff, Arizona, where 30 homes and scores of other buildings were destroyed, authorities said they used sirens and alarms Thursday night to warn residents to flee areas of evacuation, but howling winds drowned out the alarms.
Afternoon winds were blowing up to 75 mph (120 km/h) in northern New Mexico near the Colorado line on Friday, shrouding the Rio Grande Valley in dust and pushing flames through the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the north.
A wall of smoke stretched from the wilderness just east of Santa Fe to about 80 miles northeast, where ranchers and other rural residents were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement .
Mulligan, 68, of Ledoux, a dog breeder, said his dog Liam “was a nervous wreck” when a sheriff came to their home on Friday afternoon and told them they had to leave.
They did it – with nine dogs and five puppies packed into an SUV and an old blue Cadillac They considered dropping the horses off at a local fairground, but decided it was down the same fire road as their house and more likely to burn down.
“There is water in their pasture and there is hay. So we’ll see what happens,” Mulligan said.
Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in nearby Rociada for five generations, went out on Friday as the winds picked up. She said most people took the threat seriously.
“As a community, as a whole, everyone is coming together to support each other and take care of the things we need right now. And then at that point, it’s in God’s hands,” she said as the wind howled for miles in the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where evacuees gathered.
Another wind-driven fire in northeast New Mexico was also forcing evacuations. The town of Cimarron and the headquarters of the Philmont Scout Ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, was preparing to flee if necessary. The Scout Ranch attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no Scouts are on the property.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.
In Arizona, flames had swept through rural neighborhoods outside of Flagstaff days earlier. A break in weather on Thursday allowed helicopters to drop water on the blaze and authorities to assess the damage.
They found 30 homes and numerous other buildings destroyed, with sheriff officials saying more than 100 properties were affected. This fire has burned nearly 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) and forced the evacuation of 765 homes after starting last Sunday.
Kelly Morgan is among the neighbors at the edge of the evacuation zone who have not left. She and her husband have lived through wildfires before, she said, and they are prepared if the winds change and the flames rush toward the house they moved into three years ago.
“Unfortunately it’s nothing new for us…but I hate to see it when people are affected like they are right now,” she said. “It’s sad. It’s a very sad time. But as a community, we’ve really come together.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Cedar Attanasio in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.
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