Under an orange sky, largest US wildfire menaces New Mexico

Firefighters in northern New Mexico, US, laboured under an apocalyptic orange sky and vehicles streamed out of the ski area of Angel Fire on Wednesday as wind-driven flames from the state’s second-largest blaze on record roared closer to the mountain resort.

With winds gusting beyond 50 mph (80 km/h) through dense, drought-parched forests, exhausted crews were at loss to stop a wildfire that has raged across a 45-mile swath of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for more than a month, destroying hundreds of homes.

Spreading through the rugged, tinder-dry landscape with explosive speed, the springtime conflagration has displaced thousands of residents while raising fears that the entire American Southwest was in for a long, brutal fire season.

The Sangre de Cristo mountains, soaring to over 13,000 feet, have traditionally seen spring storms dumping more than two feet of snow. But climate change has diminished the snowpack and brought summer-like temperatures earlier in the year, biologists say, drying out the region and leaving communities more vulnerable to fire.

At Angel Fire’s airstrip, strong winds grounded firefighting helicopters. Seven miles to the south at Black Lake, firefighters huddled around a map and discussed which properties they could try to save.

To the north, residents of Taos Canyon cut down their own trees to create fire buffers around homes. About four miles farther west of downtown Taos - the heart of an area inhabited by indigenous people for 1,000 years - residents were advised to be ready to evacuate on short notice. Although unseasonably warm temperatures and extremely low humidity will persist in the days ahead, winds that have howled with gale-force strength for nearly a week are expected to subside on Friday, giving firefighters a bit of a respite, forecasters said.

The blaze has burned over 236,939 acres (95,885 hectares) of land, a zone over 11 times bigger than the London Metropolitan Area., with containment lines carved around about a third of its perimeter as of Wednesday evening. The fire grew out of two blazes that ignited about two weeks apart and later merged into one, the first originating from a prescribed-burn project that ran out of control, according to fire officials. The cause of the second remained under investigation.