‘Like hell’: Western US burns at breakneck pace so far

A firefighter works to extinguish a burning structure during a wildfire Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Laguna Niguel, Calif.  (AP Photo/Marcio J. Sanchez)

A firefighter works to extinguish a burning structure during a wildfire Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Laguna Niguel, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio J. Sanchez)

PA

Wildfires are at a furious pace earlier this year, from a California hillside where mansions with multimillion-dollar views of the Pacific Ocean were burned to remote New Mexico mountains charred by a month-old monster fire.

The two places couldn’t be more different, but the common elements are the same: wind-driven flames ripped through extraordinarily dry vegetation due to a years-long drought exacerbated by climate change.

As the unstoppable northern New Mexico wildfire swept through denser forest on Thursday, firefighters in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel doused the charred, smoldering remains of 20 large homes that quickly burst into flames and forced a frantic evacuation.

“The sky, everything was orange. It felt like hell so we just jumped in the car,” Sassan Darian said, recounting his escape with his daughter and father as embers swirled around them. “My daughter said, ‘We’re on fire.’ There were sparkles on her and we were patting each other.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) have burned so far this year — the most so far since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The forecast for the rest of the spring does not bode well for the West, with drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change increasing the danger of wildfires.

“We all know it’s very early for our fire season and we’re all in awe of what we’ve been through…so far,” said Dave Bales, New Mexico fire commander who is the biggest fire in the world. WE

Fire officials said there was little they could do to stop the fast-moving flames in the dry tinder forests of the Sangre de Christo range. It’s just too dangerous to put firefighters in front of a blaze that is moving this hard and fast through overgrown mountainsides blanketed in ponderosa pines and other trees that have been sucked in by moisture for decades.

Even small fires that once would have been easily contained are extreme threats to life and property due to climate change, said Orange County Fire Authority chief Brian Fennessy.

The perfect example erupted on Wednesday afternoon when flames that could have been started by electrical equipment were pushed into a canyon by strong sea breezes and quickly ignited large homes. They burned a relatively small area – about 200 acres (81 hectares) – but left a wide path of destruction.

A sprawling estate sold for $9.9 million had looked like a California dream in real estate listings: brimming with luxuries that included a two-level library, a ‘wellness wing’ with sauna and steam room, and a pool on a terrace overlooking scenic Laguna Beach.

By nightfall, the mansion once pictured against a pastel sunset had turned into a nightmare: its arched facade silhouetted against a bright yellow sky as firefighters raised their hoses on the sunken structure.

After the large flames were extinguished on Thursday, the house was one of many smoking victims marked off with yellow tape. In another driveway, a burnt-out car was resting on its rims. The surrounding steep hillsides have been blackened and stripped of vegetation.

Many other homes emerged unscathed, and palm trees that had survived the onslaught of embers swayed overhead in calmer winds.

A firefighter was hospitalized but no other injuries were reported.

The cause of the fire was under investigation and damage inspections were still ongoing Thursday, Orange County Fire Authority Deputy Chief TJ McGovern said. Southern California Edison reported that unspecified “electrical circuit activity” occurred as the fire broke out late Wednesday afternoon.

Electric utility equipment has been repeatedly linked to starting some of California’s most disastrous wildfires, especially during windy weather.

Last year, the state Utilities Commission approved a settlement of more than half a billion dollars in fines and penalties for SoCal Edison for its role in five wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

In the southern foothills of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, the blaze appeared to spare the region’s largest population center, Taos, a popular tourist and skiing destination 40 miles south of the Colorado border.

With strong spring winds tossing embers into unburned territory, the fire has spread across tens of square miles daily since early April 6, when a prescribed burn intended to clear brush and small trees – to prevent future fires – got out of control. That blaze merged with another wildfire several weeks later, and flames have now charred more than 405 square miles (1,050 square kilometers).

The blaze has so far burned more than 170 homes, but authorities said the number is expected to rise significantly as more assessments are carried out and residents are allowed to return home to areas deemed safe.

The New Mexico fire has scorched mostly rural areas that include a mix of scattered ranch homes, historic Hispanic villages that date back centuries, and high-priced summer cabins. Some of the herding and farming families who have called the area home for generations have spoken at length about the sanctity of the landscape, while many others have been too heartbroken to express what they have lost.

The blaze was expected to spread north and east on Thursday, but crews were planning a break Friday and through the weekend as forecasts called for milder weather.

Still, many areas remained under evacuation orders and crews scrambled past the blaze, clearing houses, laying pipes and looking for other places where they could build fire lines in the hope to slow its progress.

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Melley reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

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