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More evacuations expected near dangerous wildfires in US Southwest

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By AP
A vehicle heads away from a plume of smoke from the Cerro Pelado Fire burning in the Jemez Mountains on Friday, April 29, 2022 in Cochiti, New Mexico, US.
A vehicle heads away from a plume of smoke from the Cerro Pelado Fire burning in the Jemez Mountains on Friday, April 29, 2022 in Cochiti, New Mexico, US.   -   Copyright  Robert Browman//The Albuquerque Journal via AP

Thousands of firefighters battled destructive wildfires in the southwestern United States as more residents prepared to evacuate into the weekend in northern New Mexico.

Strong winds and dangerously dry conditions have made the blazes hard to contain.

The biggest fire in the US grew to more than 303 square kilometres through the afternoon northeast of Santa Fe.

Gusty winds prevented any aerial attacks by midmorning and crews lost some of the containment they had established in previous days.

The rapid rate of the spread of the fire was exceeding dire predictions in some areas, incident commander Carl Schwope said Friday night.

"We’re in a very dangerous situation. Evacuation statuses are changing as we speak,” he warned at a briefing in Las Vegas, New Mexico, about 80 kilometres east of Santa Fe.

More air and ground forces were on the way, he said, to fortify the nearly 1,000 firefighters on the fire lines there and winds that gusted up to 65 mph were beginning to subside as nightfall approached.

At least 166 homes have been destroyed in northeast New Mexico’s rural San Miguel County.

Erratic wind shifts in some of the driest conditions the region has seen in years were forecast again on Saturday, and authorities were making preparations to evacuate some residents as far north as Taos.

“Just getting people out of the way, that’s been the mission today,” Sheriff Chris Lopez said at the briefing in Las Vegas. Some of the most active fire was heading in the direction of that town but he said the town itself was not in immediate danger.

Fire lines were bolstered outside the rural New Mexico community of Ledoux in efforts to save structures, and they appeared to be holding.

More than 2,000 firefighters were battling fires in Arizona and New Mexico on Friday — about half of those in northeast New Mexico, where a total of more than 484 square kilometres of mostly timber and brush have been charred.

Red flag warnings for extreme fire danger were in place Friday for nearly all of New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

The fires are burning unusually hot and fast for this time of year, especially in the Southwest, where experts said some timber in the region is drier than kiln-dried wood.

“We still have some fire weather to get through tonight, tomorrow and several days afterwards," fire behaviour specialist Stewart Turner said at Friday night's briefing in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

“It's very important that everybody pays attention to the evacuation orders because this is a very, very serious fire — very dangerous fire behaviour out there.”