'Like an inferno': US wildfires burn at furious pace in California and New Mexico

A firefighter works to put out a structure burning during a wildfire in Laguna Niguel
Nationwide, more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometres) have burned so far this year — the most at this point since 2018 Credit: AP

Twenty mansions have been left in ruins and hundreds have been forced to evacuate after a wildfire ripped through Laguna Niguel in southern California.

Wildfires are on a furious pace early this year, with another month-old monster blaze charring the remote New Mexico mountains.

As the unstoppable northern New Mexico wildfire chewed through more dense forest on Thursday, firefighters in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel doused the smouldering remains of 20 multimillion-dollar homes that quickly went up in flames and forced a frantic evacuation.The two places could not be more different, but the elements in common are the same: wind-driven flames have torn through vegetation that is extraordinarily dry from years-long drought exacerbated by climate change.

Orange County Fire Authority's Shane Sherwood said the weather is expected to get hotter and drier, while Orange County Sheriff's Department's Captain Virgil Asuncion thanked the 900 residents who evacuated their homes in Laguna Niguel.

“The sky, everything was orange. It looked like an inferno, so we just jumped in the car,” Sassan Darian said, as he recounted fleeing with his daughter and father while embers swirled around them.

“My daughter said, ‘We’re on fire.’ There were sparks on her and we were patting ourselves down.”

Nationwide, more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometres) have burned so far this year — the most at this point since 2018, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre.

A firefighter works to put at a structure burning during a wildfire Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in Laguna Niguel Credit: AP

Predictions for the rest of the spring do not bode well for the west, with the drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change worsening wildfire danger.

“We all know it’s really early for our fire season and we’re all in awe of what we’ve already experienced ... to this point,” said Dave Bales, commander on the New Mexico fire that is the largest burning in the U.S.

In California, a sprawling estate selling for $9.9 million had looked in real estate listings like a dream: teeming with luxuries that included a two-level library, a “wellness wing” with sauna and steam room and a pool on a terrace overlooking scenic Laguna Beach. By nightfall, the mansion once photographed against a pastel sunset had morphed into a nightmare: its arched facade silhouetted against a glowing yellow sky as firefighters trained their hoses on the engulfed structure. After the big flames died down on Thursday, the house was one of many smoking casualties marked off with yellow tape.

These two images show how the fire destroyed a house in Laguna Niguel. Credit: AP

Many other homes appeared unscathed and palm trees that had survived the onslaught of embers swayed above in calmer winds.

Two firefighters were hospitalised but no other injuries were reported.

The fire’s cause was under investigation and damage inspections were still ongoing on Thursday, Orange County Fire Authority Assistant Chief T.J. McGovern said.

Southern California Edison reported unspecified electrical “circuit activity” occurred around the time the fire broke out late on Wednesday afternoon.

Firefighters and residents stand on a fire road where the Coastal Fire jumped and burned several homes in Laguna Niguel Credit: AP

In New Mexico, fire officials said there was not much they could do in recent days to stop the fast-moving flames burning in tinder-dry forests in the Sangre de Christo range.

Fuelled by overgrown mountainsides covered with Ponderosa pine and other trees sucked dry of moisture over decades, it's now burned across more than 405 square miles (1,048 square kilometres) — an area bigger than the city of Dallas, Texas.

Crews fighting flames along the mountain fronts between Santa Fe and Taos in New Mexico mostly held their own on Thursday thanks to welcome help from aerial attacks.

Residents in four counties east and northeast of Santa Fe remained under a variety of evacuation orders and alerts, and fire officials expected the blaze to continue on a northeast path east of Taos through less-populated areas about 40 miles (64 kilometres) south of the Colorado line.

With strong spring winds tossing embers into unburned territory, the fire has grown tens of square miles daily since starting April 6 when a prescribed burn intended to clear out brush and small trees — to prevent future fires — got out of control.

That fire merged with another wildfire several weeks later.

The blaze has burned more than 170 homes so far, but authorities have said that number is expected to increase significantly as more assessments are done and residents are allowed to return home to areas deemed safe.