1,200 firefighters battle record New Mexico blaze

The fire had charred more than 354 square miles of the Gila National Forest by Saturday morning. While there was no immediate threat, residents there have been immersed in a thick haze of smoke for days. 

Alan Sinclair/U.S. Forest Service/AP
A firefighter works an area along the northwest perimeter of a massive blaze in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the fire that has burned nearly 217,000 acres in an isolated mountainous area of southwestern New Mexico.

The more than 1,200 firefighters who are battling the nation's largest wildfire in rugged mountains and canyons of southwestern New Mexico were racing Saturday to build lines to corral the massive blaze before more threatening winds and dry conditions developed.

The fire had charred more than 354 square miles of the Gila National Forest by Saturday morning, and fire managers expected it to start backing down the mountains east of the community of Glenwood.

While there was no immediate threat, residents there have been immersed in a thick haze of smoke for days. At night, the ridgeline in the distance lights up with flames.

IN PICTURES: New Mexico wildfires

Fire information officer Lee Bentley said some of the crews that have been burning out vegetation ahead of the fire will be repositioned to keep it from getting any closer to the community.

"We're going to continue fighting this fire aggressively without putting our firefighters in danger," he said. "We're getting as much of a black line as we can around this fire."

Fire behavior was expected to be active to extreme on Saturday with wind gusts of up to 28 mph. Humidity levels also remained low, Bentley said.

The fire is about 15 percent contained, which much of that being on the fire's northern and northwestern flanks.

The blaze in the Gila National Forest — the largest on record in New Mexico as well as the country's biggest current blaze — has burned through 227,000 acres of rugged terrain. So far, it has destroyed a dozen cabins and eight outbuildings.

There are still some pockets of unburned vegetation within the fire's perimeter, and members of the incident management team have estimated that a majority of the fire has left behind only minimal to moderate fire scars.

It's too early for the ecologists, soil scientists and hydrologists to get on the ground to start assessing the fire's effects, but they are hopeful much of the area can recover given that only a portion of the fire has burned with the kind of intensity that can vaporize entire stands of trees and damage the soil.

Another factor in the fire's behavior is the Gila forest's decades-old strategy of allowing lightning-sparked fires to play more of their natural role in cleaning up the forest's litter. Fires within the Gila Wilderness are often managed rather than immediately extinguished.

The Whitewater-Baldy fire has already run into previously burned areas, which fire managers say have helped slow the flames.

"The fact that this is wilderness and the wilderness of the Gila has seen a lot of fires, we are comfortable with allowing it to burn. What we do is monitor it and help steer it around to keep some of the impacts lower than they would otherwise be on their own," said Danny Montoya, an operations section chief with the Southwest Incident Management Team.

Montoya said the rugged terrain has forced firefighters to attack the flames indirectly by starving the fire of fuels along its perimeter.

The smoke has also prevented direct attack from the air. Several helicopters and small planes are helping ground crews with backburn operations along the perimeter.

IN PICTURES: New Mexico wildfires

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