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Blizzard hammers North Dakota; fires rage in New Mexico

The snow and severe thunderstorms are expected to linger in the central U.S. through Sunday

The Calf Canyon Fire burns near Penasco Blanco, N.M., in San Miguel County on Friday. (Eddie Moore/AP)
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A weekend blizzard unloaded 12 to 20 inches of snow in the western Dakotas and northern Rockies, part of a powerful spring storm that also fueled a rash of fires in New Mexico on Friday and Saturday.

The combination of heavy, wet snow and roaring winds left more than 15,000 customers without power Sunday afternoon in the Dakotas, where the snow was finally starting to subside.

In New Mexico, the wind gusts, which peaked in the 60-to-80-mph range on Friday, eased Sunday, but numerous fires were still not fully contained. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said more than 200 structures had burned in the state, according to the Associated Press. The governor declared states of emergency in several affected counties.

The combination of strong winds, extremely low humidity, high temperatures and drought fueled blazes not only in New Mexico but also in parts of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. A blaze in Cambridge, Neb., which is about midway between Lincoln and Denver, resulted in the death of a retired fire chief and injuries to at least 15 firefighters, according to the Associated Press. It had burned 85,000 acres through Saturday.

Scientists have determined that human-induced climate change is intensifying the fire risk by increasing temperatures, which dry out the land surface more quickly and make it more combustible. Almost all of New Mexico and the western portions of Kansas and Nebraska are enduring drought.

The storm system responsible for the fires and blizzard was lifting into Canada on Sunday, but its cold front, sweeping through the central United States, could trigger severe thunderstorms and flooding in the area Sunday afternoon and evening.

The storm has produced incredible temperature contrasts. On its warm side, high temperatures soared into the record-breaking 80s and 90s in the Plains on Friday and Saturday but plummeted into the 20s on its frigid northwest flank. In North Dakota, where the cold and warm air clashed, a blizzard warning and tornado watch on Saturday were separated by less than 100 miles.

Blizzard to gradually subside in Dakotas, northern Rockies late Sunday

Blizzard warnings remained in effect Sunday morning in northeast Wyoming, eastern Montana, northwest South Dakota and western North Dakota. Most accumulation had already occurred in the region, but the combination of strong winds — gusting over 50 mph in some areas — and lingering areas of snow was still expected to generate whiteout conditions at times Sunday.

“Travel will be very difficult to impossible,” the National Weather Service office in Bismarck, N.D., wrote.

The warnings were dropped during the afternoon.

Late Saturday, heavy snow and strong winds forced the closure of Interstate 94 from Dickinson, N.D., to the Montana border.

Snowfall totals through Sunday afternoon included:

  • Bozeman, Mont.: 15 inches (12 miles to the south-southeast).
  • Gillette, Wyo.: 11.5 inches.
  • Dickinson, N.D.: 7 to 13 inches.
  • Spearfish, S.D.: 12 inches.
  • Williston, N.D.: 8.5 inches.

Fire risk eases in New Mexico, but several active blazes

The Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center indicated that no areas in the Lower 48 faced an elevated fire danger Sunday, after several days of critical to extreme conditions in parts of the Southwest and Plains.

“Oh thank goodness!,” tweeted the Weather Service office in Albuquerque.

Between Tuesday and Saturday, numerous fast-moving blazes charred tens of thousands of acres in New Mexico and adjacent states.

Among 20 blazes burning in New Mexico, three had charred at least 20,000 acres:

  • The Calf Canyon Fire: This blaze had burned 42,341 acres as of Saturday, resulted in structure loss and forced the evacuation of several communities in San Miguel and Mora counties, which are northeast of Santa Fe.
  • The Cooks Peak Fire: This blaze had burned 48,672 acres as of Saturday. No structures had been reported lost, but several communities in Colfax and Mora counties, northeast of Santa Fe, were evacuated.
  • The Mitchell Fire: This blaze in Harding County, N.M., about midway between Santa Fe and Amarillo, Tex., had burned 20,000 acres as of Saturday, but no structures were threatened.

Lingering heavy rain, storm risk in central states

Although the center of the storm responsible for the windswept snow and fires is lifting into Canada, its strong cold front will continue to push eastward through the central United States on Sunday.

The Storm Prediction Center declared a Level 1 or 2 risk (out of 5) for severe storms from Central Texas to eastern Michigan. Dallas; Indianapolis; Chicago; South Bend, Ind.; and Flint, Mich., are included in these risk zones.

“Scattered large hail, isolated severe wind gusts, and a tornado or two are possible across parts of the southern Great Plains, mainly this afternoon and evening,” the Storm Prediction Center wrote. “Scattered damaging winds, marginally severe hail, and a tornado or two are also possible this afternoon into early evening from the Mid-Missouri Valley to Lower Michigan.”

Because of the potential for heavy downpours along the front, the Weather Service placed the zone from northeastern Texas into southern Illinois under a slight to moderate risk of excessive rainfall. Some areas could see up to 2 to 4 inches of rain in a short time, causing flooding.

On Saturday, the same front led to 70 reports of severe weather from Texas to Minnesota, including four tornadoes scattered through the eastern Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa.

On Monday and Tuesday, the front will progress toward the East Coast, producing more downpours and abruptly ending a period of summerlike weather.

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