High wind forecasts worry New Mexico fire managers

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2011 12:42 AM
High wind forecasts worry New Mexico fire managers

Strong fire lines were helping firefighters keep a wildfire contained in southern New Mexico despite winds gusting up to 40 mph Wednesday afternoon.

Crews worked to strengthen the lines during the morning in advance of high winds kicking up in the Ruidoso Downs area, where the fire has charred more than 16 square miles.

"It's still an active fire, it's still moving along, but it's not getting outside containment lines," state Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said.

The 10,341-acre fire that broke out Sunday was 50 percent contained by Wednesday night.

Ware likened the work of fire crews in the rugged, steep area to landscape work.

"They're in the back country, cutting a path _ the containment lines _ trimming up trees, cutting down sick or dying trees because they're more susceptible to fire," he said.

Aerial drops of fire-retardant slurry weren't feasible in the wind, Ware said.

"It doesn't do any good if the wind picks it up and carries it away," he said.

A fire burning in central New Mexico since Saturday was 70 percent contained. There's very little fire activity on that 2,700-acre blaze near the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge, Ware said.

"They're patrolling and mopping up. It looks to be in really good shape," he said.

A weather system moving into New Mexico was bringing some moisture and higher humidity, which Ware said was helping reduce the spread of the fires despite the wind.

Both fires forced evacuations over the weekend. Several neighborhoods around Ruidoso Downs and casino-goers at the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino were told to leave. In the Sevilleta area, heavy smoke forced about 50 people from the New Mexico Boys Ranch near Belen, about 60 miles south of Albuquerque.

All the evacuations have been lifted.

No structures burned in the Sevilleta area, but the Ruidoso Downs-area blaze destroyed five houses and seven outbuildings, damaged two other homes and two outbuildings and burned numerous vehicles. The fire began in steep, rugged Gavilan Canyon and grew rapidly, pushed by winds estimated at 50 to 60 mph.

Ware said the Ruidoso-area fire has passed by neighborhoods that had been evacuated, and that even if the wind direction changed, the fire would not be able to advance because it would be pushed into areas that already have burned out.

State Forestry Division officials said Tuesday the Sevilleta fire was caused by sparks from a hand-held metal grinder that ignited grass and weeds. They were looking for the person or persons responsible.

The Ruidoso-area fire also was human-caused, but the exact cause was unknown, Ware said.

Several small fires broke out Wednesday morning in southeastern New Mexico's Lea and Eddy counties, but Ware said they were caught immediately and they all remained less than 10 acres.