May 28, 2012 / 2:26 AM / 7 years ago

Calmer winds help New Mexico forest fire crews go on offensive

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Diminished winds helped fire crews take the offensive on Sunday against an 11-day-old blaze burning out of control through the rugged high country of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, but nearly 300 homes in the area remained under evacuation.

Smoke is pictured billowing from the site of wildfires at the Whitewater-Baldy Complex in southwestern New Mexico in the Gila National Forest in this May 17, 2012 handout photo obtained by Reuters May 27, 2012. REUTERS/U.S. Forest Servic/Handout

The so-called Whitewater-Baldy fire, which destroyed a dozen privately owned cabins at the height of its rampage last week, has charred well over 122,000 acres of timber since it was ignited by lightning on May 16, fire officials said.

The blaze ranked as the biggest by far of several large, uncontained wildfires still burning across four Western states - New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado - and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reported on Sunday.

Those fires have collectively consumed more than 300 square miles (777 square km) of forest, brush and grasslands, the agency said.

Fueled by dense vegetation in the mountainous pine forests west of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the Whitewater-Baldy fire was stoked for several days by gale-force wind gusts that drove flames swiftly from treetop to treetop.

On Sunday, the winds relented, giving firefighters working with hand tools and bulldozers a chance to go on the attack.

“The fire behavior is much less extreme than it has been the last couple of days,” fire information officer Arlene Perea told Reuters. “We got a little bit of cooperation from the weather.”

“For the last five days, we’ve had fire running at our firefighters, and we’re finally able to get the opportunity to turn the tables,” Perea said.

A slight cooling trend helped, too, as ground crews worked to deprive advancing flames of fresh fuel by clearing smaller trees and brush that has yet to burn, she said. The calmer winds also allow helicopters and planes equipped to drop water and fire-retardant chemicals to return to action where needed.

More than 600 firefighters were battling the southwestern New Mexico blaze, she said, and the governor has ordered a contingent of National Guard troops to help protect homes in the area.

Despite improved conditions, Perea said, evacuation orders remained in effect for some 200 homes in the vicinity of the historic Wild West mining town of Mogollon, and for about 60 cabins in the nearby community of Willow Creek, where 12 dwellings and 13 outbuildings were lost last Wednesday.

Several roads in the area, along with a recreational trail in the Gila National Forest, were also kept closed.

Hundreds of miles to the north, two wind-driven wildfires burning in western Colorado forced the evacuation of recreational areas and campgrounds during the busy holiday weekend, fire managers said on Sunday.

The larger of the two blazes, the Sunrise Mine fire, has scorched 5,000 acres in remote canyons along the Colorado-Utah border, said Mike Davis, spokesman for the Montrose Interagency Fire Management Unit.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of the Buckeye Reservoir and two other recreational areas and closed two roads leading into the area north of Paradox, Colorado, Davis said.

No structures have been lost, and no injuries have been reported.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Meanwhile, the Little Sand fire has blackened 2,325 acres northwest of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, prompting the closure of more than a half dozen campsites, incident spokeswoman Pam Wilson said.

Wilson said the lightning-sparked blaze was “creeping along the forest floor” for the last two weeks before high winds fanned the flames on Saturday.

Decreasing winds, and cooler temperature forecast for Sunday should aid firefighting efforts, she said.

Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; editing by Paul Thomasch and Todd Eastham

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