Firefighters make gains against New Mexico Carlsbad blaze

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 15, 2011 5:33 PM
Firefighters make gains against New Mexico Carlsbad blaze

By Dennis Carroll

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Firefighters gained the upper hand on Wednesday against a high-desert brush fire that has scorched 25,000 acres in and around Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeastern New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns will remain closed for at least another day, but residents and tourists were allowed back into Whites City, a tiny town of about 200 people on the eastern edge of the park that was evacuated on Tuesday, authorities said.

A 30-mile stretch of U.S. highway 62-180, the main traffic route through the area, also was reopened, fire information officer Jennifer Myslivy told Reuters.

The wind-driven blaze erupted Monday afternoon in the park, about 200 miles southeast of Albuquerque, burning through a landscape of rocky slopes and canyons covered in scrub brush, grasses and cactus.

Taking advantage of diminished winds and higher humidity, firefighters managed to carve containment lines around a quarter of the fire's perimeter by Wednesday morning, Myslivy said.

The 46,000-acre national park, known for its scenic limestone caves and an abundance of bats, sustained damage to water and sewer lines, but no injuries were reported.

Some 300 miles away, fire crews battled to prevent a separate blaze in northeastern New Mexico from spreading into Colorado, where it could feed on parched grasslands and invade an area of dense timber farther to the north.

"We hope to build a good, solid containment line before the winds pick up this afternoon," said Emily Garber, a spokeswoman for an interagency fire management team.

The fire, which has grown to more than 30,000 acres, has destroyed 14 structures just north of Raton, N.M., and forced some 500 people to flee their homes, though the leading edge of the blaze was now burning away from town, officials said.

The so-called Track Fire was only about 5 percent contained as of Wednesday morning.

Interstate 25 through the Raton Pass between the two states, remained closed for about 25 miles as erratic winds continued to drive flames through drought-stricken brush, juniper and oak timber.

Nobody has been reported hurt so far, though several firefighters were temporarily overcome by heat, authorities said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)