New Mexico hit hard as wildfires sweep parched Southwest

Smoke drifts from a fire in the neighbourhood of The Farm, in Colorado Springs

(This April 23 story corrects paragraph 4 to read "east" instead of "west.")

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) - Wind-driven wildfires in northern New Mexico burned multiple homes and forced hundreds to flee mountain villages as blazes raged in the parched U.S. Southwest at a time when the fire season is just beginning.

Two wildfires merged northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Friday and raced through 15 miles of forest driven by winds of over 75 mph (121 kph).

Air tankers and ground crews were able to fight the blaze on Saturday after a yet-untold number of houses burned south of the village of Mora.

To the northeast, a fire about 35 miles east of Taos doubled in size to become the largest burning in the United States, forcing the evacuation of a scout ranch and threatening several villages.

The wildfires are the most severe of nearly two dozen in the U.S. Southwest and raised concerns the region was in for a brutal fire year as a decades-long drought combined with abundant dry vegetation.

"Fire is still traveling very quickly, it is imperative residents comply with evacuation orders," San Miguel and Mora counties said in a news release.

The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires combined to burn 42,341 acres, an area larger than Florida's Disney World. The blaze turned east on Saturday, giving crews a chance to bulldoze fire breaks to protect Mora and other villages to the north, said incident commander Jayson Coil.

Climate change has lowered winter snowpacks and allowed larger and more extreme fires to start earlier in the year, according to scientists.

West of Taos, the Cooks Peak fire nearly doubled in size to 48,672 acres, forcing the evacuation of the Philmont Scout Ranch and threatening the village of Cimarron.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Leslie Adler)