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New Mexico wildfire, largest in state history, is 10% contained

June 01, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Firefighters in southwestern New Mexico continued to battle the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history Friday as the flames scorched stretches of the Gila Wilderness.

Experts say the massive blaze could be a preview of things to come this fire season as the rest of the West copes with a dangerous combination of wind, low humidity and dry brush.

The Whitewater-Baldy blaze in New Mexico has charred more than 216,000 acres in Gila National Forest and has become the largest wildfire burning in the country, officials said Friday.

It was 10% contained Friday, double the level of the day before, and firefighters were scouting along the fire's eastern and southwestern flanks to establish firm containment lines, officials said.

So far, no one has died or been injured in the blaze, although a few firefighters reported minor injuries, fire information officer Lee Bentley told The Times.

He said 1,239 firefighters were battling the blaze Friday, creating burned-out areas along the fire's edge that are designed to slow its spread, which surpassed last year's Las Conchas fire as the state's largest. That fire scorched 156,593 acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The fire has burned a dozen homes and forced about 22 residents to evacuate from the small towns of Willow Creek and Mogollon, Bentley said.

Smoke from the wildfire forced the National Park Service to close the nearby Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on Thursday, and it remained closed on Friday.

Gov. Susana Martinez viewed the fire from a New Mexico National Guard helicopter Thursday and described the terrain in the fire areas as "impossible." She told the Associated Press that there was no way firefighters could directly attack the flames in the rugged areas of wilderness, and that the acreage burned would likely increase.

"It's going to keep going up," she said. "Be prepared for that."

Experts say drought conditions across the Southwest have left other states vulnerable to similar wildfires.

Agencies in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona were already preparing this month. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email systems for wildfire warnings, and most states have enlisted outside crews to assist if a big blaze erupts.

According to the National Weather Service, drought conditions are expected to persist across the Great Basin and central Rockies during wildfire season, affecting large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Firefighters in New Mexico have been coping with winds and low humidity, but Friday appeared to be an improvement, Bentley said, with temperatures in the 70s.

"It’s not too bad today -- in fact, it's the best day we've had in a while," he said. "There's a lot of moisture. The humidity's not as low as it has been. The temperature's going to be in our favor today."

He said officials still expect winds to gust up to 25 mph, with a chance of thunderstorms and dry lightning, making progress in containing the fire uncertain.

"I would like to think we'd be able to hold it where it is now, but it depends on the weather," he said.


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