Serious fire weather conditions cover the southern Plains and Desert Southwest on Monday, continuing a multiday stretch of bone-dry and windy conditions that will last into the midweek. Forecasters at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque are describing the situation as “dangerous and dire” as large fires grow and conditions are ripe for any new ignitions to erupt.

The Weather Service’s Prediction Center is calling it a “volatile combination of windy and dry conditions” that could foster “extreme [fire] behavior” and “promote rapid [fire] spread.” It designated a top tier “extremely critical” wildfire risk for northeastern New Mexico and southeast Colorado Monday.

This most serious danger zone includes Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Pueblo, Colorado. Surrounding that is a much broader “critical” risk across the remainder of New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas and adjacent northern Arizona.

More New Mexico residents warned that they may need to flee fire

It comes as numerous large fires are burning in the Southwest, including New Mexico’s Calf Canyon fire northeast of Santa Fe. It’s torched 189,767 acres as the state’s second-largest fire on record, and is 43% contained. The blaze, the cause of which is under investigation, ignited April 19 before merging with the Hermit’s Peak Fire to the east, a prescribed burn that fire crews lost control of amid strong winds.

On Sunday evening, the Calf Canyon made a run to the east-northeast, prompting new mandatory evacuations in parts of San Miguel and Mora County, adding to nearly 13,000 people who had already fled the blaze.

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Nearly 1,700 personnel were actively involved in combating the fire as of Monday morning. Inciweb, a wildfire information clearinghouse, reports the fire is devouring a “a significant amount of dead and downed fuels in the understory.” They blame “severe drought exasperated by strong winds and high temperatures,” which has also delayed the green-up of vegetation and allowed for an earlier start to fire season. Much lower than normal snowpack during winter contributed to the drought.

By Monday evening, red flag warnings for dangerous fire conditions will have persisted for 59 hours in the area, a “rare multiday event,” according to NM Fire Info, an interagency website providing updates on the fires in the state.

Another large blaze in New Mexico, the Cerro Pelado Fire, to the west of Santa Fe, has burned over 40,000 acres and is 11% contained. Residents of the Los Alamos County, known for the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the first atomic bomb was developed, have been told to be ready to evacuate if the blaze expands.

Fire season came with a vengeance in early April, weeks earlier than usual. It ordinarily ramps up in May and peaks in June before the sudden arrival of monsoonal moisture. Forecasters are becoming increasingly concerned.

“This is not that typical for this early in the season,” said Tuck Jones, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “In fact, it’s potentially record-breaking in terms of the number of critical fire weather days we’ve seen in April and May.”

Setting the stage for the fire are historic drought conditions in the area. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, one-quarter of New Mexico is in a level 4 out of 4 “exceptional” drought. That’s beyond severe drought, and marks the point at which the Rio Grande begins to dry up.

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“No surface water is left for agriculture, [and] farmers use private wells,” states the U.S. Drought Monitor. “Bears encroach on developed areas; migratory birds change patterns.”

And that’s just the background heading into an upcoming fire event. The weather will be equally disconcerting, with hot, dry weather building on the heels of gusty winds.

“We haven’t had that many systems coming along,” explained Jones in a phone interview. “We’re looking at dry air that’s moved over the area. It’s pretty much stayed like that for a while.”

Equally troubling is the current jet stream pattern, which has favored sprawling storm systems repeatedly moving north of the Four Corners. Subsequently, there haven’t been any widespread rain events. Instead, New Mexico and the Southwest just get the westerly winds on the backside of each counterclockwise-swirling system, each round of which introduces a renewed insurgence of stale desert air.

As that air descends down the Rockies, it undergoes “adiabatic compression,” a physical process that results in additional warming and drying.

“When we’re talking historic events, that’s what we mean,” said Jones. His office has issued red flag warnings 28 times since April 1.

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On Monday, a “dryline,” or the leading edge of arid desert air, was in central Texas and western Oklahoma, with westerly winds behind it sapping the ground of any moisture. In New Mexico and Texas Hill Country, relative humidity percentages could dip to as low as 4%.

At the same time, sustained winds will blow between 20 and 30 mph out of the west-southwest, which will cause any spark to rapidly spread. Gusts could top 75 mph in the higher elevations. High wind warnings are in effect for many mountaintops across the Southwest.

Denver was included in a red flag warning, with meteorologists urging residents to “avoid burning or any outdoor activity that may produce a spark and start a wildfire.” It was just over five months ago that Louisville and Superior, two Boulder County towns on the northwest side of Denver, were scorched by the most destructive wildfire in the Centennial State’s history.

Over the next several days, winds may slacken some but dry, gusty conditions are predicted to persist. Winds will abate nightly before resuming each afternoon. The breeze will gradually turn more out of the southwest Tuesday and south-southwest Wednesday.

The outlook isn’t good for the beleaguered region.

“A dire and critical to extreme fire weather event continues,” the National Weather Service in Albuquerque summarized.