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Fire Crews Make Progress Against Little Bear Blaze

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Firefighters continued to make progress fighting the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso, which had burned more than 37,000 acres and at least 224 homes and other structures by Wednesday.

Hundreds of residents remained out of their homes in the area because of mandatory evacuations.

However, officials have reopened two subdivisions and a road leading to the town.

The subdivisions Sonterra 3 and Caprock Court were reopened Wednesday, and N.M. 48 between the airport and Capitan was reopened in the evening the same day.


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The Little Bear blaze, which began with a lightning strike in the White Mountain Wilderness more than a week ago, has scorched 58 square miles in the Sierra Blanca range and containment stood at 35 percent after crews used a two-day break in the hot, windy weather to build miles of fire lines and conduct burnout operations.

Officials said Ski Apache also reported some damage to the ski area but expected to open this coming winter. The ski area used its snowmaking equipment early in the fire to help keep the flames at bay.

Meanwhile, crews also continued to make progress against the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico and were reporting it 51 percent contained. That blaze, the largest in the state’s history, began May 16 and has burned more than 280,000 acres.

New Mexico hasn’t been alone in battling wildfires this summer, with major blazes blackening forests in Colorado and Wyoming. Against that backdrop, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is renewing his call to restore forests to a more natural state, in which he said fire was a part of the landscape and, in many instances, was far less destructive.

A combination of decades of vigorous fire suppression and the waning of the timber industry has left many forests a tangled, overgrown mess, subject to super-fires.

The Forest Service is on a mission to set the clock back to zero and the urgency couldn’t be greater, Tidwell said. The plan calls for accelerating restoration programs — everything from prescribed fire and mechanical thinning — by 20 percent each year in key areas facing the greatest danger of a catastrophic fire. This year’s target: 4 million acres. The budget: about $1 billion.

“We need to understand the conditions we’re facing today,” Tidwell told The Associated Press.

The accelerated restoration effort is focused on several landscape-scale projects, the largest of which is a 20-year plan that calls for restoring 2.4 million acres across four forests in northern Arizona.

A similar project is planned in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, where a historic fire ripped through 244 square miles and threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory last summer.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal