By Andrew Hay
TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A wildfire burning for 40 days in New Mexico on Monday became the largest in the Southwestern state’s recorded history as it forced the evacuation of a small ski resort and villages in drought-hit mountains east of Santa Fe.
Driven by relentless winds, the blaze has torched an area approaching the size of Los Angeles, destroying hundreds of homes and other properties in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Residents of the Sipapu ski resort and communities around 13 miles (21 km) south of Taos received evacuation alerts over their cellphones late on Sunday as the blaze pushed into the Pecos Wilderness.
The so-called Hermits Peak Calf Canyon fire has torched 298,060 acres (121,000 hectares), surpassing the previous largest fire, the Whitewater Baldy blaze in 2012. It was 27% contained, the Santa Fe National Forest reported.
The 45-mile-long (72-km long) conflagration began on April 6 when the U.S. Forest Service failed to contain a so-called controlled burn designed to prevent larger wildfires. That blaze then merged with another, the cause of which is under investigation.
The fire has destroyed watersheds and forests used for centuries by Indo-Hispano farming villages for building material, firewood and irrigation.
Smoke clogged the plaza of Santa Fe as the fire burned within 20 miles (32 km) of the city of 84,000, a major tourist destination, triggering evacuations in other mountain communities on Sunday.
Flames have raced through forests packed with fuel after a century of fire suppression and logging bans since the 1990s, according to biologists.
Climate change has lowered snowpack and dried out forests, while a 25-year-drought has made trees susceptible to die-off from disease and pests, they say.
(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)