Wildfires in Southwest as central, southern U.S. brace for Memorial Day severe weather

The Southwest and High Plains will see weather conditions that could lead to wildfires over the Memorial Day weekend, while the central and eastern U.S. could see severe thunderstorms.

Low humidity, gusty winds and dry vegetation in the Southwest could cause new fires to spread rapidly, the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center said in a Saturday morning forecast. There are red flag warnings – denoting increased risk of fire – issued from southeast Arizona to West Texas and the western Oklahoma Panhandle.

In New Mexico, a blaze dubbed the Blue 2 Fire has already burned an estimated 3,300 acres in the remote White Mountain Wilderness, located west of Roswell. The fire began from a May 17 lightning strike in an area that previously burned, but wind and dry conditions are affecting firefighters’ response, said Amanda Fry, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service at Lincoln National Forest, where the fire is burning.

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This 2022 file photo shows a wildfire raging in southern New Mexico as thousands were ordered to evacuate. New Mexico is seeing wildfires over Memorial Day weekend that could worsen due to dry, windy conditions.
This 2022 file photo shows a wildfire raging in southern New Mexico as thousands were ordered to evacuate. New Mexico is seeing wildfires over Memorial Day weekend that could worsen due to dry, windy conditions.

The fire is also in rugged terrain, making it difficult for firefighters to access the area. Containment is at 0%. But a fire that burns the dead or downed trees from the previous fire is inevitably going to occur, Fry said, adding that it’s a natural part of how the forest cleans itself. There are evacuation orders in place.

“Our concern is keeping homes and the community safe, while allowing the forest to do what it does naturally, which is wildfire,” she told USA TODAY. “That’s just part of a forest’s lifecycle.”

Further north, the 1,800-acre Indios Fire northwest of Santa Fe, started from lightning on May 18, also had limited containment in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness. Fire weather watch was in effect Saturday due to dry conditions and winds.

In southwestern Colorado, the Spruce Creek Fire burned 5,699 acres after a lightning strike caused the fire on May 17, in an area that hadn’t seen fire in decades. Containment was at 38% as of Friday, but San Juan National Forest spokesperson Lorena Williams said there likely won’t be increased spread due to containment lines and a road system acting as a barrier for the fire’s spread. There haven’t been red flag warnings for the fire, but milder winds have lifted smoke from communities.

The area is used to wildfires, particularly from lightning strikes, Williams said. Having a fire now, versus during more extreme fire conditions, gives first responders a better opportunity to prepare for future blazes.

“The landscape, ecosystem and communities will benefit from this long-term," she said.

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Severe weather in central, eastern and southern U.S. over Memorial Day weekend

Severe weather is affecting the central and eastern U.S. over the weekend, federal forecasters said. A storm system is strengthening across the central and southern Plains, which could create thunderstorms with chances for intense tornadoes, giant hail and destructive winds later Saturday.

After the storm system shifts eastward Sunday, there could be damaging wind gusts as a complex of thunderstorms moves from Missouri through Kentucky, with potential for flash floods, hail and a few tornadoes.

By Memorial Day, the storm is expected to turn toward the eastern U.S. Low pressure will move into the Great Lakes, and a strong cold front could move along the Appalachians. Memorial Day barbecues could face showers and storms with lightning, rain and gusty winds, forecasters warned.

In the South, forecasters warned of heat reaching “oppressive levels” in southern Florida, the Gulf Coast and South Texas that could break daily record highs. Excessive heat warnings remained in effect in South Texas. Heat indices could reach around 115 degrees, a level considered dangerous for people spending extended time outside.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Memorial Day weekend weather could fuel wildfires, severe storms