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N.M. headed toward potentially dangerous fire season

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New Mexico is dry, the spring winds are already in full force and there’s plenty of grass that’s ready to burn, resulting in what authorities said Tuesday is the perfect recipe for a potentially severe fire season.

Dozens of state and federal land managers along with officials from New Mexico’s largest city and surrounding communities gathered in Albuquerque to issue a warning to residents around the arid state.

Crews have responded to more than 140 fires that have charred roughly 50 square miles (130 square kilometers) of state and private land since January. That’s almost as much as what was burned all of last year.

In March alone, state forestry officials reported 80 fires, most of which were caused by people.

Nationally, land managers reported four dozen new large fires as of Tuesday, most of them in the southern half of the U.S. That includes 14 fires in Oklahoma, which is the only spot in the nation right now grappling with exceptional drought — the worst category of drought.

In the cottonwood forest along Albuquerque’s stretch of the Rio Grande, crews have been working to clear out overgrown and dead vegetation to reduce the risk as a few patches of the bosque — Spanish for woodlands — have been identified as areas of concern.

“We’re real behind the curve with moisture,” Lt. Brian Fox said, who heads up the Albuquerque Fire Department’s wildland unit. “Without the snowfall packing down the grasses, we’re going to see a lot of these fast-moving grass fires taking the flames from the surface up to the tree tops quickly.”

Inmate work crews have been clearing vegetation further up the river near the village of Corrales. The volunteer firefighters who make up the force there say they’re ready.

New Mexico is coming off a good year in which there were few fires and drought was mostly absent from the state. In fact, 2017 marked one of the first times in two decades that New Mexico had enjoyed such favorable conditions.

Now, the latest map shows severe to extreme drought covering nearly 80 percent of the state. Those levels of drought were nonexistent within New Mexico’s borders a year ago.

“Due to the prolonged dry conditions, state of New Mexico has been preparing for an early start to wildfire season,” Lt. Gov. John Sanchez said during a news conference Tuesday.

He pointed to planning meetings that have included multiple agencies and the training of new firefighters that has been ongoing since last fall. There’s also a push to get homeowners involved as state officials say nearly 750 communities around the state are at risk.

New Mexico is not alone as drought has hit much of the southern high plains in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle along with the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. Neighboring Arizona has been mired in drought since the beginning of the year.

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