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Intense hot, dry weather fuels wildfires

A firefighter with Engine 91 of the National Parks Service keeps an eye on the Cajete Fire as it runs along N.M. 4 in the Jemez National Forest on Thursday.

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Hot, dry weather intensified throughout New Mexico on Thursday, fueling wildfires across the state, including one that has forced evacuations in the Jemez Mountains.

Also, get ready for the first 100-degree day of 2017 on Saturday, when record and near-record temperatures are forecast across the state. A high of 109 is forecast for Roswell that day.

The blistering heat and dry conditions stoked the fast-moving Cajete Fire, which closed N.M. 4 west of Los Alamos and prompted Sandoval County deputies to evacuate residents in several communities.

Dry conditions also aided the Bonita Fire in the Carson National Forest, which had burned an estimated 1,800 acres west of Tres Piedras. That fire was about 15 percent contained late Thursday.

The lightning-caused Bonita Fire sent smoke into the Rio Grande Valley, casting a haze over Albuquerque on Thursday that could continue today.

“The heat is on,” said Kerry Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

“We’re going to get awfully close (on Friday) to a century – 100 degrees,” he said. “It seems like almost a sure bet by Saturday.”

Albuquerque normally has highs of about 90 degrees in mid-June.

The state’s highest temperatures Saturday are expected in eastern New Mexico, where record highs of 107 in Tucumcari and 109 in Roswell are forecast.

The state can expect a respite on Sunday, when cooler air moves into the state from the north, bringing the possibility of rain in mountainous areas.

“Some of that cool air is going to leak into (Albuquerque) and cool things down” on Sunday, Jones said. “I say ‘cool’ with a little bit of a smirk, because we’re still going to be well into the 90s.”

Hotter and drier weather with little chance of moisture is expected to quickly return to New Mexico early next week. “It is just going to stay hot, and unfortunately, dry for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Firefighters were actively suppressing the Cajete Fire, with a Type 1, or top-level, incident command team expected to arrive Thursday night, said Julie Anne Overton, spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest.

The fire was reported about 10:45 a.m. Thursday and rapidly spread to 600 acres, forcing law enforcement to evacuate people from Los Griegos, Ruby Hole and Sierra de los Pinos subdivisions, Overton said.

Firefighting resources included six fire engines, three air tankers, a helicopter and multiple ground crews, she said.

Several larger fires also burned Thursday in remote areas of the Gila National Forest, including the 5,550-acre Corral Fire, and the 2,500-acre Straw Fire.

State and federal officials are using minimal suppression to manage fires in remote areas, including the Bonita Fire in Carson National Forest, said Chuck Maxwell, a fire meteorologist for the Southwest Coordination Center.

“The reason that those fires are ongoing is because they are being allowed to burn for ecological benefit,” Maxwell said Thursday.

New Mexico has enjoyed unusually cool, wet weather this spring, greening much of the state, he said.

“When the conditions are cool and moist and the grass is green, we take the opportunity to let those fires do what they are supposed to do,” he said.

Rising temperatures this week are a return to what is a normal, pre-monsoon weather pattern in New Mexico in mid- and late-June, Maxwell said.

Hot, dry conditions also prompted Cibola National Forest officials to announce Stage 1 fire restrictions, which prohibit building fires of any kind, beginning Thursday in the Mountainair Ranger District.

Stage 1 restrictions will be imposed today in the Mount Taylor Ranger District, and on June 23 in the Sandia Ranger District.

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