USA — SANTA FE, New Mexico – A wildfire burning out of control in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico is now the biggest in the state’s history, officials said on Wednesday.
The Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire has burned more than 170,000 acres, fire information officer Gerry Perry said, surpassing the 156,593 acres burned in last year’sLas Conchas fire, which threatened the town of Los Alamos and its national nuclear laboratory.
“It’s certainly a dubious distinction that we weren’t looking forward to,” Perry said.
The massive blaze, fueled by thick timber, low humidity and gusty winds, is raging out of control over 170,272 acres, or 269 square miles (697 square km), an area roughly the size of Austin, Texas, or the towns of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho combined.
Officials said more than 1,200 firefighters were working the blaze, which was sparked by lightning on May 16 and has destroyed 12 homes and a similar number of outbuildings.
Perry said firefighters had wrapped some historic New Deal-era structures, built as fire lookouts, with an aluminum-like protective covering. Other crews had cut extensive fire lines and conducted burnout operations to stop the oncoming fire, he said.
Communities near the blaze, such as the small mining town of Mogollon, remain evacuated. Recreational trails in the Gila National Forest are closed.
Spot fires were a big concern on Wednesday as the probability of ignition was near certain should a spark be carried away by the wind, which was expected to gust between 14 to 25 miles per hour, Perry said.
“Fuel moisture is down to about 2 percent and relative humidity in the single digits, which creates conditions perfect for the fire … but not so good for those of us trying to fight it,” he said.
In Arizona, about 150 firefighters continued to make strides battling the so-called Gladiator Fire, which has claimed six structures and 16,240 acres since it broke out on May 13.
The fire, which is now 65 percent contained, has charred prime ponderosa pine and brush about 40 miles north of Phoenix and forced the evacuation of three small communities for nearly two weeks. Residents began returning to the area last Friday.
“We’re making really good progress,” said Patrick Lair, a fire information spokesman. “We’re mopping up the perimeter and any hotspots. We feel good right now.”
Crews battling the Sunflower Fire, which has blackened 17,618 acres in Arizona, have reached 80 percent containment, officials said. About 50 firefighters remain working the fire.