Weekend wildfires in the West: The damage so far, and what’s being done to stop it

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Thousands of firefighters battled destructive wildfires in the Southwest as more residents prepared to evacuate Friday into the weekend in northern New Mexico where strong winds and dangerously dry conditions have made the blazes hard to contain.

The biggest fire in the U.S. grew to more than 117 square miles (303 square kilometers) 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.

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Over 1,000 firefighters backed by bulldozers and aircraft battled the largest active wildfire in the U.S., after strong winds had pushed it across some containment lines and closer to a small city in northern New Mexico.

Calmer winds on Saturday aided the firefighting effort after gusts accelerated the fire’s advance to a point on Friday when “we were watching the fire march about a mile every hour,” said Jayson Coil, a fire operations official.

Ash carried 7 miles (11 kilometers) through the air had fallen on Las Vegas, population about 13,000, and firefighters were trying to prevent the fire from getting closer, said Mike Johnson, a spokesperson with the fire management team.

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In a small enclave in northern Arizona where homes are nestled in a Ponderosa pine forest and tourists delight in camping, hiking and cruising on ATVs, high winds are nothing new.

But when those winds recently ramped up and sent what was a small wildfire racing toward their homes, residents in the close-knit Girls Ranch neighborhood near Flagstaff faced a dilemma: quickly grab what they could and flee, or stay behind and try to ward off the towering, erratic flames.

Most of the property owners left. One couple stood their ground. Another raced to save animals on neighbors’ properties.

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