Smoke travels from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfires, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, U.S., May 2, 2022.
Smoke travels from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfires, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, U.S., May 2, 2022. Reuters / ADRIA MALCOLM

Airborne firefighters dumped water and retardants on a raging New Mexico wildfire on Saturday, expediting their mission ahead of gustier forecast winds that officials said were expected to ground much of their aerial campaign in the coming days.

In all New Mexico was battling at least six wildfires, the worst of them burning the mountains and canyons just east of the capital of Santa Fe, amid extremely hot, windy and dry weather that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham called "the worst possible set of conditions for any fire."

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon complex had burned 170,665 acres as of Saturday, officials said, the equivalent of 266 square miles (690 square km) or nearly 90% of the land area of New York City, destroying at least 170 homes and forcing 16,000 evacuations, officials said.

Worse yet, sizzling temperatures and powerful winds were forecast for another five days in what firefighters have deemed a "historic fire weather event."

Dave Bales, U.S. Forest Service incident commander for the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, told reporters that helicopter and airplane pilots started early on Saturday in expectation that gusty winds would pick up and ground the fleet.

Saturday's wind speeds of 30 mph with 60 mph gusts (48 to 96 kph) were expected to increase on Sunday. Meanwhile, relative humidity of 35% was forecast to dip to a bone dry 18% on Sunday, firefighters said.

"We will not be able to fly aircraft, so the next few days we won't have a lot of aviation support," Bales told reporters.

Sustained winds are manageable, but fluctuating speeds create hazards for pilots, and strong winds blow water and retardant drops off the mark, Bales said.

KOAT television showed a helicopter dipping a vat attached to a cable into a lake, while planes skirted billowing smoke to drop water and fire retardants over flames.

More than 13,000 firefighters on the ground were rotating in and out, using hand tools and bulldozers to create fire breaks.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire was 21% contained on Saturday, but pockets of unburned forest remained behind the fire lines, meaning it had plenty more fuel, Bales said.

The fire consists of two blazes that ignited about two weeks apart and later merged into one, the first originating from a prescribed-burn project that got out of control. The cause of the second remains under investigation, officials said.

At least five others raged elsewhere in the state.

One of them, the 59,000-acre (238 square km) Cooks Peak fire a little further to the northeast from the main blaze, was 97% contained, meaning resources could soon be diverted elsewhere in the state, Lujan Grisham said.