A psychiatric hospital has been forced to evacuate in New Mexico as wildfires continue to rage across the state.
Wildfires have grown this week near the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, prompting further evacuations and calls for a federal disaster declaration.
On Wednesday morning, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, 20 miles east of Santa Fe, had spread across 250 square miles (sqm) – an area larger than the city of Chicago – a jump from 180 sqm at the start of the week.
The fire’s spread led to almost 200 patients being evacuated from the New Mexico State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in the city of Las Vegas, AP reported.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday asked President Joe Biden to declare a major disaster which could open up additional funding and assistance for people and communities affected by the fires.
The governor declared a state of emergency in late April in four counties in response fires across the state.
Areas immediately surrounding Las Vegas, a city of 13,000 people, were under mandatory evacuation orders by Wednesday.
The fire is 20 per cent contained, according to InciWeb, a government fire database. The blaze is expected to grow over the coming days with intermittent high winds, according to InciWeb. Mandatory evacuations are in place for communities south, east and north of the fire.
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 42 square miles by Wednesday – around 60 per cent 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.
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 week. 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.
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.”