New Mexico wildfire, largest ever in the state, continues to burn (+video)
The Whitewater-Baldy blaze has burned more than nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico. It's now the largest wildfire burning in the country.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"We're transitioning from La Nina to El Nino, so we have no guidance to what's going to happen, like if we will get more rain or less rain," said Ed Polasko, a weather service meteorologist.
A lack of moisture means fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere could pose a problem since many states received no sustained snow or rain this winter and spring.
That's what happened in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.
Typically, fires in the area don't cross the middle fork of the Gila River, said Danny Montoya, an operations section chief with the Southwest Incident Management Team.
"This year, it did get across," Montoya said. "We're getting humidity levels during the day about 2 to 3 percent. Normally, during summer you'd see 5 to 12 percent."
Officials closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on Thursday due to smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure would remain in effect until conditions improve.
The blaze is 5 percent contained, but fire managers expect that to jump as crews bolstered lines on the northern end. Scars from previous burns were also helping to slow the flames on the southeastern flank.
"We're continuing with burnout operations and we've been helped with a slight rise in humidity and decreased winds," Estes said.
Another reason 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 wasn't 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 large 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 it's supposed to happen."
Contreras reported from Albuquerque.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.