Slowing winds aid N.M. wildfire fighters

ALBUQUERQUE – Crews battling a massive wildfire in southwestern New Mexico’s Gila National Forest began burnout operations Monday aimed at halting the blaze from creeping into two small towns.

After growing to more than 190 square miles and becoming one of the largest fires in New Mexico history, lighter winds helped firefighters start control measures along the mountainous forest lands. Last week, strong winds forced crews to the sidelines as the fire rapidly spread in an isolated region of southwestern New Mexico, destroying a dozen homes, several in the community of Willow Creek, which remains under evacuation. No other communities were threatened.

Denise Ottaviano, a spokeswoman for the crew fighting the blaze, said since the winds slowed, the fire hasn’t made a significant push toward the small, privately owned ghost town of Mogollon. However, nearby residents were forced to evacuate.

On Sunday, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez authorized the deployment of 15 National Guard soldiers to help secure areas around the fire.

The 156,593-acre Los Conchas Fire last year was the state’s largest in its history when it charred around 244 square miles.

Also, authorities report a new wildfire burning in the Gila National Forest.

Forest officials say the Wagontongue Fire has burned only about 40 acres in an area about 20 miles northeast of Reserve.

Reserve Ranger District officials say the fire began Sunday, and its cause is undetermined

They say a fire line already has been built around the blaze, which is burning ponderosa pine and grass in rugged terrain near the 9,000-foot level.

One hot-shot crew, four firefighters rappelling from a helicopter and four smoke jumpers were working the fire on Monday.

Meanwhile in Arizona, officials said a wildfire that had prompted the evacuation of the historic northern Arizona mining town of Crown King is 50 percent contained.

A Prescott National Forest spokeswoman said Monday that firefighters were patrolling the Gladiator Fire’s perimeter, looking for any flare-ups or hazardous fuels. They say some smoke may be visible in neighboring communities.

The 350 residents of the community, which is located 85 miles north of Phoenix, were allowed to return home last week after an initial evacuation.

The Gladiator Fire broke out May 13 inside a home and has charred almost 16,300 acres.