ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As summer approaches, relief is in sight for drought-stricken New Mexico and many other parts of the West as Mother Nature appears ready to ease up on her back-to-back blows of stifling heat and gusty winds.
A break in the unfavorable weather can't come soon enough for the hundreds of firefighters battling a blaze on the Navajo Nation that has consumed more than 20 square miles of pinon and juniper forest along with grazing lands that tribal livestock owners have used for centuries.
The Assayii Lake Fire has destroyed at least four structures. Another 50 homes near the rural communities of Naschitti and Sheep Springs were threatened, with some in Naschitti evacuated.
Forecasters with the National Weather Service said storms moving across the Southwest have helped raise humidity levels, and the winds are expected to die down by Thursday, giving firefighters the window needed to directly attack the flames.
"What we saw over the past three or four days will basically end tomorrow. No more wind," meteorologist Chuck Maxwell said Wednesday.
Despite the variability in the weather and drought, the fire season has been relatively slow across the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. The number of acres burned so far this year is half of the 10-year average, and there have been fewer large fires. In the Southwest, the acreage burned is only 46 percent of average.
"The reason the Southwest is below average is because it had a late start to its fire season," said Robyn Broyles with the interagency fire center. "There was a lot of moisture throughout the spring for both New Mexico and Arizona. They're actually having a less severe fire season."
The Navajo Nation blaze is one of nine large fires burning across the country.
New Mexico, including a large swath of the reservation, is in its fourth year of severe drought, and the risk of fire has been high. The blaze is only making matters worse for families who are watching from afar as flames char their summer and winter grazing pastures.
Tribal agriculture officials said that depending on the intensity of the Assayii Lake Fire, it could be many months before sheepherders and cattle ranchers get to return to the hills outside Naschitti and Sheep Springs. Officials said they will search for other areas on the sprawling reservation where livestock can graze.
Authorities repeatedly have urged Navajo families to refrain from heading into the mountains to search for their livestock.
"They really do value the life of their livestock more than they value their own," fire spokeswoman Shari Malone said. "It's been difficult."
On Wednesday, planes dropped fire retardant on the southern part of the blaze, while crews began building a line along the western and northern flanks. They were also trying to protect a communication tower to the north.
Elsewhere, diminishing winds have helped firefighters nearly contain a blaze burning near Lake Isabella in California's southern Sierra Nevada. The blaze was 90 percent contained Wednesday morning, with no flames jumping the perimeter.
In northern Arizona, crews contained a 7-acre wildfire that broke out in Oak Creek Canyon and forced about 40 people to evacuate. The fire was just north of a blaze that charred 31 square miles last month in the scenic canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff.
In southern New Mexico, dry thunderstorms peppered the Gila National Forest on Wednesday with as many as 2,000 lightning strikes. Forest officials said dispatchers and fire personnel were busy with numerous reports of small fires.