Firefighters worked under an apocalyptic orange sky and vehicles streamed out of Angel Fire, New Mexico, on Wednesday as the largest active US wildfire advanced on the ski resort and nearby town of Taos.
With winds blowing at more than 80 kilometres through parched forests, there was no way to stop a blaze that has raged up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, destroying hundreds of homes.
Already the second-largest fire in state history, the blaze started in a period considered unusually early in the year and has burned for over a month, raising fears the drought-hit US South-West is in for a long, brutal fire season.
As smoke hung heavy outside Angel Fire's supermarket, Almeada Martinson said she planned to pack her photos, guns, two dogs and cat, then flee to Taos, 27 kilometres to the west.
“I'm totally anxious and terrified, this is my home,” said Ms Martinson, general manager of a construction business, as ash swirled around her feet.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, soaring to almost 4,000 metres, used to get spring snowstorms of about half a metre but climate change has lowered the snowpack, biologists say, leaving communities vulnerable to fire.
At Angel Fire's airstrip, strong winds grounded firefighting helicopters. To the south at Black Lake, firefighters huddled around a map and discussed which properties they should try to save.
In immediate danger was the village of Chacon, where locals were surrounded by fire on two sides after they stayed behind to defend centuries-old ranches, firefighters said.
To the north, residents of Taos Canyon cut down trees around homes to defend them from fire after the area about six kilometres from the centre of Taos was told to be ready to evacuate.
A century of fire suppression and court bans on logging since the 1990s have left New Mexico's northern forests overcrowded and clogged with fuel, biologists say.
The fire now threatens lands where the Picuris Pueblo and Taos Pueblo Native American tribes have hunted and gathered building materials for about 1,000 years.
The blaze has burnt over 95,881 hectares of land, an area larger than all five boroughs of New York City. It is 33 per cent contained.