Firefighters were being forced to sit on the sidelines Thursday as a massive wildfire that destroyed a dozen homes and several other structures in a small summer community in southwestern New Mexico grew larger and put more structures at risk.
Tripling in size over the last day, the lightning-sparked Whitewater and Baldy fires merged to burn across more than 110 square miles of the Gila National Forest by Thursday.
Crews have been unable to attack the flames directly because of fierce winds and erratic fire behavior, said fire information officer Iris Estes.
“At this point it’s just a monitoring situation to see whether they can find some place where they can build lines or do something to slow it down,” she said.
The wind-whipped fire burned through the Willow Creek subdivision on Wednesday afternoon. Officials confirmed 12 homes along with seven small outbuildings were destroyed, and the damage assessment continued Thursday.
Fire managers said employees with the State Forestry Division and the U.S. Forest Service would be contacting property owners.
Seven Willow Creek residents evacuated earlier this week, and the community of Mogollon was under voluntary evacuation. Authorities said many structures were still at risk.
The northwestern flank of the fire was about 5 miles from Mogollon. Estes said the flames were headed in a northeasterly direction.
Firefighters were anticipating winds of up to 35 mph late Thursday afternoon.
The flames have raced across more than 70,500 acres of steep, rugged terrain in the Gila National Forest. The Baldy fire was first spotted May 9 and the Whitewater blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days thanks to relentless winds.
There is no containment.
The blaze is about half the size of last summer’s historic Las Conchas fire, the largest in the state’s recorded history. That blaze burned 156,593 acres and destroyed dozens of homes in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains.
With drought conditions persisting, New Mexico forestry officials have been urging residents to take precautions to help avoid another record fire season.
Many trails in the Gila region were off-limits due to the Whitewater-Baldy fire and more could be closed as the blaze continues to burn.
About 10 miles to the southeast, volunteers and staff at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument have been watching the column of smoke develop each afternoon.
“The plume above us yesterday was truly awesome. It was scary awesome,” said volunteer Dave Young.
The monument was not in any immediate danger, but Young described conditions in the area as “bone dry.”
“We’re talking single-digit humidity in the afternoon. We’ve been down to 1 percent, and you can’t get below 1 percent,” he said.
Aside from low humidity and high temperatures, Estes said crews were expecting the red flag conditions to last through Saturday.
More than 400 personnel were assigned to the fire.
12:33 p.m. by ABQ News Staff – Twelve homes and seven small outbuildings were destroyed yesterday in the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, fire officials confirmed today.
The fire, which combined yesterday, has now charred 70,579 acres, InciWeb reported just after 12 p.m. Many structures are still at risk due to extreme fire behavior and high fuel loading.
The blaze has come out of the Gila Wilderness and into the Gila National Forest in the Willow Creek Subdivision, officials said. It has crossed State Road 159 at Silver Creek Divide and it working its way into Mineral Creek.
The fire is still at zero percent containment, and high winds are expected to continue today.
– Associated Press –
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two lightning-sparked blazes have merged, providing a new challenge for fire crews in southwestern New Mexico.
Crews battling the Whitewater and Baldy fires on the Gila National Forest are now faced with controlling one massive fire Thursday that has burned through 110 square miles.
Fire information officer Sharma Hutchinson says firefighters’ main concern is protecting the communities of Mogollon and Willow Creek from the 70,500-acre blaze.
So far, there is no containment.
Hutchinson says Mogollon is under voluntary evacuation. About seven residents in Willow Creek have already been evacuated.
Hutchinson says firefighters anticipate winds of up to 35 mph Thursday as they try to contain flames.
Read more about fires and fire danger in New Mexico in this morning’s Journal.