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Wildfires in New Mexico continue to grow

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Large wildfires continue to break out across southwestern states. New Mexico is getting hit hardest, with seven fires raging. The largest just surpassed 200,000 acres burned.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The fires have pushed tens of thousands of people out of their homes, and more evacuations are expected. Barney Torres (ph) lives in Cleveland, N.M., and told Al Jazeera he is worried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARNEY TORRES: There's some bad winds coming up Wednesday night - really, really strong. So if they don't contain it by Wednesday, we're going to be in real trouble.

FLORIDO: The winds have been relentless for weeks now. In Las Vegas, N.M., NPR's Eric Westervelt reports that even veteran firefighters are saying conditions are extraordinary.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Thousands have been evacuated as fire crews try to contain the fire spreading across drought-parched Pinyon and ponderosa pine forests in what marks another intense and early start to the Western fire season. Large parts of the Southwest have seen drought for decades. That combined with intense wind, called red flag days, and warmer temperatures have created nightmarish fire conditions here. Crews have had to battle dangerously strong, gusty winds, sometimes 40 to 70 miles per hour, for days at a time. Bladen Breitreiter is a meteorologist on what's known as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fires.

BLADEN BREITREITER: It is pretty extraordinary. To have a red flag warning to last for 59 hours is - as far as my memory goes back, is unprecedented.

WESTERVELT: Breitreiter says, in all, the fire has seen red flag wind warnings in at least 26 of the 34 days since the fire erupted in April. Usually when fire crews see intense red flag days, the wind and temperatures die down at night and relative humidity comes up, but not on the Calf Canyon fire. The wind just never seems to let up. Veteran wildland firefighter Dave Bales is the incident commander.

DAVE BALES: Man, I tell you it is - that's been a huge challenge for us. And I've been doing this for just about 3 1/2 decades, and I have not seen that many red flag events in a row. Specifically, this last event we just went through was up to five days straight of a red flag, you know, day and night.

WESTERVELT: For the tired crews on the ground, Bales says, that's meant winds tossing embers and creating new spot fires far beyond their hard-fought containment lines.

BALES: In the winds that we were experiencing last couple of days, yesterday, I believe we had reported spotting of up to two miles. So you can imagine a two-mile spot trying to go on a direct fire edge with a dozer or a hand crew or even a retardant line - a two-mile spot is going to jump that. So that has been our biggest challenge so far.

WESTERVELT: The relentless wind has also been tying the hands of what firefighters here can do. Airplanes and helicopters have been grounded most days out of safety concerns, sidelining vital tools in the fire battle. And ground crews have to keep an even closer eye on the blaze as fast wind-driven fire can easily encircle or trap men and women. Clayton Pitts (ph) is a lead firefighter on a U.S. Forest Service crew out of San Bernardino, Calif. He says the increase in wind has meant an increase in risk to firefighters.

CLAYTON PITTS: When you have winds 25, 45, 60 miles an hour, it really changes the - what tactics you can do on the ground. Now, when you have extreme fire behavior, your time ledge changes. Your decision space changes. And you need to be able to look out into the future further so that you can get your guys to safety if things rapidly escalate.

WESTERVELT: One part of the fire was started when an intentional or prescribed burn got out of hand after winds picked up. Officials are investigating whether there were safety lapses in that intentional blaze meant to clear out heavy fuel left by decades of fire suppression. The fire is spreading through rural forested terrain and affecting mostly small villages and towns. On Sunday, near the town of Holman, the fire jumped what was considered an important fire line break, Highway 518. That led to evacuation orders for a few more towns. Chris Lopez, the sheriff of San Miguel County, says those who choose not to leave are endangering themselves and first responders. But he understands it isn't an easy decision.

CHRIS LOPEZ: It's very difficult for these people, as some of them - their homes are generational. And so when we go in there to do evacuations, you know, you have to really talk to them. And usually I try and do it in a very systematic - especially with our Ready, Set, Go process, it helps them to prepare.

WESTERVELT: What's your message to those who want to stick around and stay?

LOPEZ: Property, homes can be replaced. But lives can't.

WESTERVELT: Winds are forecast here to let up a little today and tomorrow, giving firefighters only a small window to try to get a bigger handle on the wildfire. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Las Vegas, N.M. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.