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Wildfire at Bosque del Apache refuge is 50% contained

Fire crews with the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge conduct the initial attack on a wildfire that started Monday on the southern end of the refuge, 20 miles south of Socorro. The blaze, which may have been caused by a lightning strike, had burned 700 acres by Wednesday afternoon. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

Fire crews with the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge conduct the initial attack on a wildfire that started Monday on the southern end of the refuge, 20 miles south of Socorro. The blaze, which may have been caused by a lightning strike, had burned 700 acres by Wednesday afternoon. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Firefighters have made significant gains in their battle with the San Pasqual Fire at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, reporting 50 percent of the blaze contained by Wednesday afternoon.

That progress prompted refuge officials to reopen parts of the facility to visitors.

Chris Leeser, visitor services manager at the refuge, about 20 miles south of Socorro, said the refuge visitor center will be open today and that the north portion of the refuge tour loop was opened Wednesday afternoon. The south portion of the tour loop remained closed Wednesday.

Leeser said that although only 50 percent of the wildfire is contained, a fire line had been established around the entire 700-acre blaze.

“Crews are taking the hot spots and knocking them down,” Leeser said. “They are trying to backburn to protect cottonwoods that will be needed to help with regeneration.”

Lightning is expected to be the cause of the fire, which started about 4 p.m. Monday. It is burning on both sides of the Rio Grande on the southern side of the refuge, a vital stopping point for migratory birds during the winter and a popular attractions for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year. The 57,331-acre refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fire crews from Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Midway Volunteer Fire Department, New Mexico State Forestry and the San Antonio, N.M., and Socorro fire departments have been working the fire. They were aided in their efforts Wednesday by relatively light winds, which Leeser said were out of the south at 5 to 7 mph, gusting to 15 mph.

No structures have been threatened by the blaze, and Leeser said nesting areas for critical bird species such at the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo are not located in the part of the refuge that is burning.

He said a large archaeological site is “fairly close” to the eastern border of the fire.

The site is a village of the Piros, an indigenous people of Rio Grande Valley whose population is estimated to have been between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the early 1600s.

“There is some surface scatter, pot shards, at the site,” Leeser said. “Other stuff is below ground.”

He said salt cedar, an invasive and undesirable species, has provided most of the fuel for the fire. Unfortunately, Leeser said, fire will not kill out salt cedar.

“The fire has done part of our work, but we are going to have to go in there and take out the salt cedar roots,” he said. “We are going to have to seek out funds to take advantage of what the fire started.”

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