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Wildfires merge in New Mexico, threatening rural villages

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Maggie Mulligan said her dogs could feel the panic as she and her husband packed them up, anguished at having to leave horses behind and fled a rapidly moving wildfire towards their home in northeast New Mexico.

“We don’t know what’s next,” she said. “We don’t know if we can go back to the horses.”

Mulligan and her husband, Bill Gombas, 67, were among anxious residents who quickly packed their bags and evacuated their homes on Friday in the face of ominous western wildfires fueled by dry conditions and fierce winds.

More than a dozen major fires were burning in Arizona and New Mexico, destroying dozens of homes and as of Saturday scorching more than 174 square miles (451 square kilometers).

Winds that howled on Friday remained a concern Saturday in northern New Mexico where two fires merged and quadrupled in size to 66 square miles (171 square kilometers) in the mountains and prairies northwest of Las Vegas .

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The merged fires burned some structures but no figures were available, said fire information officer Mike Johnson. “They were able to save some structures and we know we lost other structures that we couldn’t defend.”

Clouds of dust and plumes of windblown smoke obscured the sky near the fires, said Jesus Romero, deputy county manager for San Miguel. “All the ugliness that spring brings to New Mexico – that’s what they’re dealing with.”

About 500 homes in San Miguel were in rural areas of Mora and San Miguel counties covered by evacuation orders or warning notices, Romero said.

Elsewhere in the region, fire danger in the Denver area on Friday was the highest in more than a decade, according to the National Weather Service, due to unusual temperatures in the 80s combined with strong winds and very dry conditions.

In Arizona, a fire in the Flagstaff area burned 30 homes and scores of other buildings as flames roared through rural neighborhoods on Tuesday.

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A shift in winds forced crews to work Saturday to keep the fire from moving up mountain slopes or toward homes in rural neighborhoods near areas that burned on Tuesday, fire information officer Dick Fleishman said. “That worries us a bit.”

In northern New Mexico, winds gusted up to 75 mph (120 km/h) on Friday, shrouding the Rio Grande Valley in dust and pushing flames across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north.

A wall of smoke stretched from the wilderness just east of Santa Fe to about 80 miles northeast, where ranchers and other rural residents were abruptly told to leave by law enforcement .

Mulligan, 68, of Ledoux, a dog breeder, said his dog Liam “was a nervous wreck” when a sheriff came to their home on Friday afternoon and told them they had to leave.

They packed nine dogs and five puppies into an SUV and an old blue Cadillac. They considered dropping the horses off at a local fairground, but decided it was on the same path as their house and more likely to burn.

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“There is water in their pasture and there is hay. So we’ll see what happens,” Mulligan said.

Lena Atencio and her husband, whose family has lived in nearby Rociada for five generations, went out on Friday as the winds picked up. She said most people took the threat seriously.

“As a community, as a whole, everyone is coming together to support each other and take care of the things we need right now. And then at that point, it’s in God’s hands,” she said as the wind howled for miles in the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where evacuees gathered.

Areas ordered to evacuate on Saturday due to another large fire that continues to spread through northern New Mexico included the Philmont Scout Ranch. Meanwhile, the nearby town of Cimarron remained on notice of a possible evacuation, according to Colfax County officials.

The Scout Ranch, owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of America, attracts thousands of summer visitors, but officials said no Scouts were on the property and staff had already been evacuated due to poor quality air.

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New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed emergency declarations for four counties over the fires.

Near the Flagstaff area fire, Kelly Morgan was among neighbors at the edge of the evacuation zone who did not leave. She and her husband have lived through wildfires before, she said, and they are prepared if the winds change and the flames rush toward the house they moved into three years ago.

“Unfortunately it’s nothing new for us…but I hate to see it when people are affected like they are right now,” she said. “It’s sad. It’s a very sad time. But as a community, we’ve really come together.

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Davenport reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report. Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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