Crews make gains against western wildfires

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:20 PM

Russell Contreras

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-- 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 and 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.

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.

Colorado crews continued to battle two wildfires that had burned a combined 12 square miles by Monday.

Officials said an eight-square-mile fire near Paradox was 30 percent contained, but a smaller fire near Pagosa Springs was burning in terrain so steep and rugged that firefighters had no containment lines built.

"It's probably going to be a while before we see any containment just because the terrain is so difficult to work in," fire information officer Pam Wilson said.

Utah officials said they plan to have the Mesa Fire in southern Utah 100 percent contained by Monday afternoon.

Utah Division of Forestry spokesman Mike Melton said cool temperatures and higher humidity Sunday helped crews get the 123-acre blaze on Smith Mesa under control.

Authorities believe the fire started when a campfire got out of control Saturday afternoon and spread on private land about five miles north of the town of Virgin.


Associated Press reporter Dan Elliot in Denver contributed to this report.

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