N.M. fire spreading in every direction

Massive blaze is seen as a likely precursor to dangerous summer

John Roads/U.S. Forest Service
The fire in the Gila National Forest grew Thursday to more than 190,000 acres, or nearly 300 square miles, as it raced across the areas steep, ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons in New Mexico near the Arizona border. Enlarge photo

John Roads/U.S. Forest Service The fire in the Gila National Forest grew Thursday to more than 190,000 acres, or nearly 300 square miles, as it raced across the areas steep, ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons in New Mexico near the Arizona border.

RESERVE, N.M. A massive wildfire in the New Mexico wilderness that already is the largest in state history spread in all directions Thursday, and experts say its likely a preview of things to come as states across the West contend with a dangerous recipe of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.

The erratic Gila National Forest blaze grew overnight to more than 190,000 acres, or nearly 300 square miles, as it raced across the areas steep, ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons.

More than 1,200 firefighters are at the massive blaze near the Arizona border, which has destroyed a dozen cabins and eight outbuildings, fire information officer Iris Estes said.

Experts say persistent drought, climate change and shifts in land use and firefighting strategies mean other western states likely will see similar giant fires this season.

Weve been in a long drought cycle for the last 20 years, and conditions now are great for these type of fires, said Steve Pyne, author of Tending Fire: Coping with Americas Wildland Fires and a life science professor at Arizona State University. Everything is in line.

Agencies in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and other western states are bracing for the worst. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email notification systems to warn of wildfires, and most states have enlisted crews from nearby states to be ready when the big ones come.

Its highly likely that these fires are going to get so big that states are going to need outside resources to fight them, said Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center.

According to the National Weather Service, a dry climate is expected to prolong drought conditions across the Great Basin and central Rockies during the fire season. Large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will remain under severe drought conditions.

Were transitioning from La Nia to El Nio, so we have no guidance to whats going to happen, like if we will get more rain or less rain, said Ed Polasko, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

And its unclear what type of relief will come from monsoon season, which starts in mid-July, because experts say its difficult to predict what areas in the West will benefit, Sullens said.

A lack of moisture means fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere could pose a problem because states received no sustained snow or rain this winter and spring.

Thats what happened in New Mexicos Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.

Typically fires in the area dont cross the middle fork of the Gila River, said Danny Montoya, a member of the fires incident command team.

This year, it did get across, Montoya said. Were getting humidity levels during the day about 2 to 3 percent. Normally, during summer youd see 5 to 12 percent.

The 2-week-old Gila forest fire is the largest wildfire burning in the country. Its size this week surpassed New Mexicos last record fire, a blaze last year that charred 156,593 acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory.Officials on Thursday closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument because of smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure would remain in effect until conditions improve.

Montoya said he wouldnt be surprised if smoke from the fire remained until monsoon season since the fire is burning in rough areas, and its difficult for crews to fight it head-on.

Estes said the blaze is 5 percent contained.

Were continuing with burnout operations and weve been helped with a slight rise in humidity and decreased winds, she said.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was scheduled to fly over the fire Thursday to survey the damage.

Other reasons states in the West will see more massive fires this season is because, coupled with drought and dry climate, crews have experienced changes in firefighting strategies and agencies have changed some policies in fighting wildfires in isolated areas, Pyne said.

In the last 20 years or so, agencies have generally been reluctant to put firefighters at risk in remote areas, Pyne said. It wasnt like that decades ago.

Instead, he said agencies have focused attention on burnout operations until conditions are safe to begin containment.

Not that those practices and the largest fires are bad things, Pyne said. For example, he said the Gila Wilderness has been a target for controlled burns.

So maybe, Pyne said, this is how its supposed to happen.

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