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Gila wildfire becomes biggest in New Mexico history

May 30, 2012|By Dalina Castellanos

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico hasn't just broken the record for the largest blaze in state history, it's shattered it.

An infrared reading about midnight Tuesday measured the fire at 170,272 acres, leaving last year’s 156,593-acre Las Conchas fire in the dust. That acreage roughly translates to 269 square miles, more than half the size of city of Los Angeles.

“The fire seems to be growing in all directions,” fire information officer Gerry Perry told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s certainly been a complicated fire.”

It has indeed.

The fire -- a combination of two fires, both started by lightning -- has been burning for two weeks and is at 0% containment, Perry said. The low humidity and high wind, combined with the Gila National Forest’s rugged terrain, have made fighting the fire particularly challenging.

The wind carries burning embers to remote areas, and the embers then start spot fires. Those fires join the larger fire and add to its growth.

Despite the complications, Perry said that the 0% containment shouldn’t be considered an indicator of firefighters' work.

“It somewhat understates the amount of effort [the crews] have put in it,” Perry said.

More than 1,200 people are now fighting the fire; they've kept the northern and western edges under control by burning the forest's undergrowth and robbing the fire of potential fuel.

Though the fire is not a threat to communities in other parts of the state, the smoke is. A shift in wind patterns is blowing the smoke over to Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso, Texas.

People with breathing conditions should take caution, Perry said.

“This amount of smoke could potentially create unhealthy conditions,” he said. “Elderly people and children should avoid outdoor activities for the duration of the smoke event.”

For today, at least.

“Tomorrow will be a new forecast.”

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dalina.castellanos@latimes.com

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