By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Wildfires raged across the western United States on Tuesday, including one that saw flames crest a New Mexico peak that is sacred to Native Americans, while firefighters were getting a handle on a blaze in California.
In New Mexico, flames have been spotted atop Redondo Peak, which is sacred to the Jemez Pueblo tribe and other Pueblo Indians, said Jan Bardwell, a spokeswoman for the incident management team handling the blaze.
Intense drought in New Mexico, California and other parts of the nation could increase the danger of wildfires this season, which has gotten off to an early and intense start.
"We are really experiencing one of the most extreme days we've had in the last week or so," said Dan Ware, spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division, adding that low humidity around the Thompson Ridge Fire was making trees easy to burn.
That blaze, burning 40 miles west of Santa Fe in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, has burned 4,451 acres and was only 5 percent contained on Tuesday as it tore through mixed conifer and ponderosa pine.
On the other side of Santa Fe, firefighters fought to protect up to 100 summer homes from burning as the Tres Lagunas Fire continued to throw spot fires up to a half mile ahead of the main blaze.
The Tres Lagunas Fire, which was started on Thursday by a downed power line, has grown to 8,660 acres and was 7 percent contained, said Dick Fleishman, a spokesman for the team handling the wildfire.
In Southern California, firefighters were taking advantage of cooler temperatures to gain greater control of a blaze that has ravaged 32,000 acres. Residents of more than 1,100 houses in the northwest Los Angeles County area where the fire is burning were allowed to return home late on Monday.
"The firefighters are starting to get a handle on the fire," said Matt Corelli, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
The Powerhouse Fire, which has burned mainly chaparral and desert scrub near the city of Palmdale since it erupted on Thursday, ranks as one of the largest and most destructive wildfires currently burning in the U.S. West.
So far this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and allied local agencies have seen 2,084 fires burn over 50,000 acres, more than six times the five-year average acreage normally burned by this time of year, said Cal-Fire deputy director Janet Upton.
"We are seeing large, damaging fires in May that we would not normally see until August," Upton said, adding that the fire season normally starts in mid-May, but that Cal-Fire started to staff up a month early this year due to the increased threat.
As firefighters in various parts of the country on Tuesday worked to control blazes, a Senate committee in Washington, D.C., held a hearing on how the federal government can improve its wildland fire management.
The policy director of an Arizona think tank told the committee that some forests need to be thinned to combat increasingly dangerous wildfires.
"We need to be more aggressive about solving the underlying problems of forest health and excess fuels," said Diane Vosick of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
In California, the Powerhouse Fire has destroyed six homes and damaged another nine, said U.S. Forest Service safety officer Ron Ashdale. It was threatening another 275 structures on Tuesday, he said. The fire is 60 percent contained.
In Alaska, cooler temperatures and more humidity, including some rain sprinkles, have helped contain several wildfires, federal and state officials said on Tuesday. A 950-acre lightning-ignited fire in Denali National Park continued to rage, but was being allowed to burn naturally, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage and Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)