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Heat, wind hit New Mexico as crews battle blazes

April 9, 2022 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Warnings that strong winds and hot and dry weather could produce dangerous wildfires blanketed most of New Mexico on Saturday as crews continued to battle at least two blazes that started as prescribed burns but then got out of hand.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings and fire weather watches that extended into Monday evening for the entire state except for snow-covered areas in higher elevations.

In southeastern New Mexico, air tankers assisted crews from at least six agencies battling a fire that had burned 3 square miles (7.7 square kilometers) of mostly grassland along the Pecos River southeast of Roswell as of Saturday and was contained around 50% of its perimeter, officials said in a statement.

The federal Bureau of Land Management said the fire was started Thursday as a prescribed burn to clear potential fire fuel but was declared a wildfire that afternoon after it grew outside the planned boundary due to a wind whirl, a small rotating wind storm generated by a fire’s extreme heat.

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The fire damaged power lines and threatened homes at times, officials said.

“We didn’t actually have to evacuate. We did tell people be ready, so they were up and ready,” Dexter Fire Chief Justin Powell told KOB-TV. “It did burn right up to some people’s houses, right beside them but we did keep it off them as much as we could.”

In northern New Mexico, crews battled a wildfire declared Wednesday after winds caused spot fires that took a prescribed burn outside its planned area. The fire is at the base of a peak in the Santa Fe National Forest about 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas.

A higher-level multiagency incident management team on Monday will begin taking over command of the firefighting effort that included at least five ground crews aided by helicopters, fire officials said Saturday.

No structure damage was reported but officials said crews were working to keep the fire out of a municipal watershed. The fire burned 350 acres (1.4 square kilometers) as of late Friday and was burning toward a wilderness area.

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This story has been updated to correct the first name of Dexter Fire Chief Justin Powell.