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The largest wildfire in the U.S. has burned an area bigger than New York City


Record dry conditions have made it very hard for firefighters to contain a giant wildfire in New Mexico. Todd Abel is a federal operations chief for southwestern fires.

TODD ABEL: That fire had a lot of energy. And what I mean by that - it throws spots in front of it and moves extremely fast. There's no way to get people in front of it to do anything with it. We couldn't even get aircraft to drop retardant in front of it.

INSKEEP: This fire started as two smaller fires. And as we're going to hear, there's a lot of talk about where one of them came from. This giant fire is now reaching as many as 30 square miles per day. East of Santa Fe, it's destroyed hundreds of homes as thousands evacuate. NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Las Vegas, N.M. Mexico. And we asked what he's seeing.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Well, we've got these unusually high winds. And many meteorologists and firefighters online are calling these winds, you know, unprecedented. They just haven't seen them before. I mean, it's called the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, and the wind just doesn't seem to let up, Steve. I mean, it's yet another example of sort of extreme weather we keep seeing in this era of climate change. I mean, they've had more than 20 days of these red-flag warnings. That's extreme wind - 40 to 70 miles per hour - during this fire, just over a month old. That includes six straight days of red-flag warnings, Steve. And today and tomorrow are again red flag days. And everyone you talk to says, look, we just haven't seen this many dangerously high-wind days in a row. Dave Bales is the fire incident commander here.

DAVE BALES: Man, I tell you, it is - that's been a huge challenge for us. And I've been doing this for, oh, just about 3 1/2 decades, and I have not seen that many red-flag events in a row. Specifically, this last event we just went through was up to five days straight of a red flag, you know, day and night.

WESTERVELT: And, Steve, that last point is key - day and night. They're lasting longer. Usually, red-flag days - you know, the wind sort of dies down at night. That's the pattern. But not on this fire. On several days, these howling winds have lasted throughout the night, and that's created really dangerous conditions, as we heard from Todd Abel at the top there - you know, tossing embers one, even two miles from the main fire, where crews have built containment lines.

INSKEEP: How are the evacuations going?

WESTERVELT: The people in the path for the most part have evacuated if they're in the direct path of the fire. Some 300 structures, including dozens of homes, have been destroyed. And as, you know, the intense winds continue and the fire spreads, the shelters are filling up. But not everyone in the fire's path has left their homes. So police continue to, you know, encourage locals to heed the evacuation orders in their area when they're given.

INSKEEP: OK. You got to tell us about how this fire started. I gather that one portion of it - one of the two fires that combined into one - started intentionally. What happened?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. This was an intentional or prescribed burn set by the U.S. Forest Service in the Santa Fe National Forest. The wind picked up, and the blaze just took off. The fire then merged with a separate, smaller wildfire a few weeks later. And it's become this big blaze known as Calf Canyon. And people are frustrated and angry that, you know, this big disruption was caused in part, it looks like, by, you know, an intentional blaze that got out of control.

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation and others have called for a full investigation. The Forest Service says it's doing its own internal investigation. And New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham yesterday said the federal government should accept significant liability and pay for much of the wildfire recovery.


MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: For me, it's negligent to consider a prescribed burn in a windy season in a state that's under an extreme drought warning statewide. So I think that it is likely - likely - that Congress and most of our federal partners accept that there is significant federal liability.

WESTERVELT: Steve, I would add, I spoke with an official at the Santa Fe National Forest, which did this burn. She told me they've been doing prescribed burning in that part of the forest for over 10 years, with many successful burns. And they had a strict burn plan for this one as well. They looked at weather, wind and moisture, as they do, in all of these prescribed burns. And the officials said, look, the weather forecasted - you know, that it was - conditions were within the parameters for a safe burn. But again, this has been an unprecedented wind event, and that controlled burn quickly got out of control.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Las Vegas, N.M. Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF B'SIDE'S "JUST DON'T CARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.