Hundreds of residents in the ancient New Mexico city of Las Vegas were ordered to evacuate on Monday as the country’s largest active wildfire grew closer to the city due to strong winds and dryness.
The fire has burned over 121,000 acres (49,000 hectares), or more than half of New York City, destroying centuries-old communities and vacation houses in the wooded highlands 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Santa Fe.
The fire is the most damaging of a dozen fires raging across the Southwest, which experts believe are becoming more common and arriving earlier this year as a result of climate change.
Families filled trucks with boxes of pictures and antiques and put cattle onto trailers in northwest Las Vegas, heeding police orders to leave the area.
David Lopez, 31, stayed to protect his family’s two trailer homes, saturating the ground with water and brushing away dead grass to create a fire break.
“This is all I have; I worked extremely hard for it,” the 31-year-old technician said, adding that he intended to evacuate once the flames were within a quarter-mile of him.
Winds died down in the late afternoon, halting the fire and averting more evacuations in the 14,000-person metropolis.
At a briefing, Incident Commander Dave Bales said, “We didn’t have that huge forceful push into Las Vegas proper.”
On Tuesday, winds were expected to change north, driving the fire closer to the communities of Mora and Cleveland, which are at the upper end of a 20-mile-long conflagration that is already the third biggest in New Mexico history.
Winds were predicted to shift on Wednesday, blowing the fire back towards Las Vegas, a trend that would last until Saturday.
San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley stated, “It’s somewhat of a waiting game since we’re at the mercy of the weather.”
The fire, which has been burning since April 6, has damaged hundreds of homes and prompted the evacuation of dozens of villages, although no casualties have been reported.