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Biden declares disaster over New Mexico wildfires as satellites capture vast smoke plumes

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President Joe Biden officially declared a major disaster in New Mexico on Wednesday in response to the wildfires raging across the state.

Satellites from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration captured footage of smoke plumes rising from the fires, which have burned through hundreds of square miles over the past month.

By Thursday, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, 20 miles east of Santa Fe, had spread to almost 260 square miles (sqm) – an area larger than the city of Chicago – a jump from 180 sqm at the start of the week.

Communities surrounding that fire are under mandatory evacuation orders as the blaze grows – including areas immediately surrounding Las Vegas, a city of 13,000 people. Evacuees include almost 200 patients from the New Mexico State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in the city of Las Vegas, AP reports.

On Tuesday, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham requested that the president declare a federal disaster, which can open up additional funding and assistance for people and communities affected by the fires.

President Biden’s major disaster declaration notes that it can offer help on temporary housing and home repairs, as well as other funding for evacuations and recovery.

Governor Grisham declared a state of emergency in late April in four counties in response fires across the state.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire is 20 per cent contained, with the blaze is expected to grow over the coming days with intermittent high winds, according to InciWeb, a government fire database.

Smoke rises from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in northern New Mexico on Wednesday (AP)
Smoke rises from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in northern New Mexico on Wednesday (AP)

AP reports that around 170 homes have been destroyed by the blaze. No fatalities have been reported.

North of Albuquerque, the Cerro Pelado fire grew to over 45 square miles by Thursday – around two-thirds the size of Washington, DC – from 28 square miles earlier in the week. That fire is also projected to spread further over the next few days.

The 2022 wildfire season in the US Southwest, which normally peaks from May to July, has gotten off to an early start.

Last month two people died in the McBride Fire in southern New Mexico, near Alamogordo, public officials said.

A plane drop flame retardant near Las Vegas, New Mexico on Tuesday (AP)
A plane drop flame retardant near Las Vegas, New Mexico on Tuesday (AP)

The Tunnel Fire in neighbouring Arizona spread to almost 30 square miles outside of Flagstaff, prompting evacuations in April.

In southern Nebraska, in the country’s central plains, the Road 702 Fire burned across 68 square miles last month. A retired fire chief involved in operations was killed, and 15 other firefighters injured, according to AP.

As of 4 May, almost 1,800 square miles have burned in wildfires across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the highest number since 2018 and higher than the ten-year average of around 1,100 square miles.

Wildfires around the world are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity as the climate crisis deepens, according to a recent UN report.

People get ready to evacuate the area near the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire with their horses (REUTERS)
People get ready to evacuate the area near the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire with their horses (REUTERS)

The American Southwest, already an arid environment, has faced extended drought conditions for over twenty years — helping to spur prime fire conditions. The climate crisis is likely to exacerbate both aridity and higher temperatures in the region.

Currently, 95 per cent of New Mexico is in “severe drought” conditions, according to the federal government’s drought monitor.

At the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fires, InciWeb reports that “fuels remain atypically dry due to ongoing severe drought exasperated by strong winds and high temperatures.”

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