UPDATE 1-New Mexico wildfires merge; blazes rage in five states
(Recasts with New Mexico, Arizona fires, changes dateline from Phoenix)
By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, N.M. May 24 (Reuters) - Two raging wildfires in southwest New Mexico merged on Thursday to become the biggest blaze among fires that have torched forest and brush in parts of five Southwestern states.
Blazes in rugged, mountainous areas of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah have forced the evacuation of a few small towns and torched at least 170 square miles (440 square km) of forest, brush and grass since mid-month.
The Arizona fires were the first major blazes in the Grand Canyon state this year after a record 2011 fire season in which nearly 2,000 fires charred more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square km), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Winds bringing a blast of damp Pacific Ocean air cut firefighters a break on Thursday in several regions.
But authorities seeking to control the combined 110-square-mile (285-square-km) New Mexico wildfire, which is called the Whitewater-Baldy Complex, said they have not managed to cut a containment line ahead of it.
And high winds are expected on Friday and Saturday, said fire information officer Iris Estes.
Twelve homes burned down on Wednesday night in the Willow Creek subdivision, which is near Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico, Estes said. Another seven outbuildings were also destroyed and the Willow Creek community was evacuated earlier this week.
PROGRESS ON GLADIATOR
On Thursday in Arizona, over 1,100 firefighters using aircraft and hand tools made progress toward containing the Southwest's most dangerous conflagration, the so-called Gladiator Fire.
That fire, which has torched more than 27 square miles (70 square km) of ponderosa pine and brush about 40 miles (64 km) north of Phoenix, was 30 percent contained on Thursday, up from 26 percent a day earlier.
"The winds we've gotten here in the last 24 hours have brought in some moisture from Baja (California)," said Dave Killebrew, a spokesman for the local fire incident team.
"Humidity reached up to as high as 50 percent in some areas of the fire, which is excellent ... That means that the fuels won't be nearly as volatile as they have been for the last few days when we've had relative humidity down as low as 3-5 percent," he added.
Killebrew said good progress was being made securing containment lines around the blaze, which forced the evacuation of the town of Crown King and three other tiny communities nearby.
In northern Nevada, lighter winds and higher humidity helped crews' efforts to curb the Topaz Ranch Estates wildfire that has razed more than 11 square miles (30 square km) of brush south of Carson City, charring two homes and 17 outbuildings.
No homes were immediately threatened and an evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday. While gusting winds challenged firefighters, rains and cooler temperatures were expected to help crews bring the flames under control by Saturday.
Crews battling the 25-square-mile (65-square-km) Sunflower Fire, in Arizona, had succeeded in reinforcing control lines and it was more than 40 percent under control.
Utah firefighters battling a 2,200-acre (890-hectare) blaze on public and private land southeast of Hurricane, about 290 miles (470 km) south of Salt Lake City said they expected to bring it under full control on Thursday. (Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Arizona, Jennifer Dobner in Utah and Zelie Pollon in New Mexico; Editing by Ian Simpson and Eric Walsh)
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