'Catastrophic fire weather' threatens drought-stricken Southwest; Tunnel Fire rages in Arizona – USA TODAY

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The Southwest was enduring high winds, warm weather and low humidity Friday that could be a recipe for disaster in already drought-stricken areas as a half-dozen large wildfires continue to rage in Arizona and New Mexico.
The National Weather Service warned of “a threat of extremely critical fire weather” in the central and southern High Plains and southern Rockies on Friday with damaging wind gusts, high winds and low humidity forecast throughout the region. Existing fires could “spread uncontrollably” and new fires could easily start, the weather service said.
“There is high confidence that a widespread extreme and catastrophic fire weather event will occur on Friday,” Santa Fe National Forest officials said late Thursday, urging residents to watch for changes in evacuation status and be prepared to leave their homes.
The Santa Fe area was expected to see sustained winds of 30 to 50 mph Friday, with gusts up to 80 mph.
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In Flagstaff, Arizona, one the largest of the fires, the Tunnel Fire, has burned more than 32 square miles and forced hundreds to evacuate. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency Thursday in Flagstaff’s Coconino County, where about 30 homes and 24 other properties have been destroyed.
Colorado’s Larimer County is also under a warning for extremely dangerous fire weather conditions with the National Weather Service in Boulder urging people to avoid outdoor activities that may produce a spark. “Any fire that starts will have the potential to spread rapidly, and would be difficult if not impossible to control,” the service said. 
Further south in Colorado, fire officials in Colorado Springs “knocked down” the bulk of one grass fire that broke out Friday. The Colorado Springs Fire Department tweeted that the fire, known locally as the Farm Fire, did not damage any structures but that evacuations would remain in place.
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“There’s still a possibility of more happening before this day is over,” Colorado Springs Fire Chief Randy Royal said, adding that there were still six to eight hours of “critical time.”
The National Weather Service in Albuquerque pointed to the ongoing megadrought that has plagued the West and High and Southern Plains for 22 years as a factor that may lead to extreme fire weather Friday.
The year-round threat of wildfire has been exacerbated by decades of poor forest management, as well as the worsening drought, which research has shown to be a symptom of the climate crisis.
“A single spark can result in a major wildfire that can burn large forested areas and/or grasslands, destroying people’s homes and livelihoods,” the weather service warned Thursday.
“This is not typical,” said Scott Overpeck with the weather service in Albuquerque. “This is really one of those days we need to be on our toes and we need to be ready.”
This has been a particularly busy start to the fire year with more than 19,700 fires nationwide that have burned more than 1,300 square miles in 2022, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This year has seen more fires burn more square miles than at this point in any other year in at least a decade.
Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY; Molly Bohannon, Fort Collins Coloradoan; The Associated Press
Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.


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