By Rob Shackelford and Judson Jones, CNN
An extremely critical, highest-level fire risk has been issued near the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, as powerful winds, combined with exceptional drought conditions, threaten to fuel the largest wildfire now burning in the United States.
Places facing a Level 3 of 3 fire risk include northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado and western portions of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. On top of red-flag warnings for dangerous fire conditions, much of the region is also under high-wind warnings, with winds of 30 to 40 mph expected Monday, along with gusts between 50 and 60 mph.
“The main concern today is going to be the wind,” Chuck Jones, senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.
“Those winds are going to be strong to potentially damaging in some places,” Jones said, adding winds could gust up to 70 mph a few times Monday, including in and near the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak wildfire — the nation’s largest — which has burned more than 197,000 acres and is 43% contained, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Much of the Southwest has been under a prolonged, severe drought fueled by the climate crisis that has fostered the critical fire conditions. Drought conditions have worsened in recent days across much of the Southwest and South, deepening a water crisis and fueling fires across several states, US Drought Monitor wrote Thursday in its weekly summary.
Three new, large fires were reported over the weekend: two in Arizona and one in Texas, the fire center said Monday. “Currently 12 uncontained large fires have burned 322,309 acres in four states … Evacuation orders are in effect,” it said.
‘Rapid spread of new fires’ is possible
Conditions near the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire and within the extremely critical risk area remain incredibly arid, with relative humidity levels only in the single digits.
A volatile combination of windy and dry conditions may lead to “extreme behavior among ongoing fires, as well as promote the rapid spread of new fires,” the Storm Prediction Center said Monday morning.
Over 4 million people are in a critical risk — Level 2 of 3 — of fire weather zone that surrounds the extremely critical fire risk, including in Albuquerque; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas. That area will see sustained winds of 20 to 25 mph, stronger gusts and very dry air.
Tuesday shows a slight improvement in the conditions in the Southwest. However, the critical risk of fire weather will remain for much of the region.
“Winds will decrease tonight, but gusty winds will redevelop over the eastern half of New Mexico Tuesday, leading to another round of critical fire weather conditions,” the Albuquerque weather service office said.
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CNN meteorologist Monica Garrett contributed to this report.