Biggest on record
By JIM OWEN
Daily Press Staff
The Whitewater- Baldy Complex has become the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
About 170,272 acres ( more than 266 square miles) of the Gila National Forest have burned since lightning sparked the Whitewater and Baldy fires earlier this month. The blazes, north of Silver City and east of Glenwood, merged last week and remain zero percent contained.
The previous record, set last year, was the 244 square miles scorched by the Los Conchas Fire, near Los Alamos.
The Whitewater- Baldy Complex is still dwarfed by last year’s Wallow Fire, which burned more than 500,000 acres. It destroyed 30 homes in eastern Arizona and reached extreme western New Mexico.
Since the destruction of a dozen summer homes and seven small outbuildings at Willow Creek last week, no more structures have been lost to the fire.
Mogollon is under an evacuation notice and the Catwalk has been closed. New Mexico 159 (Bursum Road), and forest roads and trails in the area also are off limits to the public.
Strong winds during the past week have been primarily responsible for the fire’s growth. Officials said a “ record- breaking dry- air mass’ and persistent drought also have contributed.
There was less wind Tuesday, allowing two airtankers and 12 helicopters to drop water and fireretardant chemicals on the flames. However, low humidity and dry vegetation continued to challenge the1,236 firefighting personnel on the scene.
They have been igniting back burns; building containment lines to keep the fl ames from spreading to Mogollon or Glenwood; burning vegetation to create a larger fi re break around the blaze’s edge; and providing structure protection in Mogollon and Willow Creek, as well as on ranches and other private property.
Equipment dispatched to the fire includes 58 fire engines, 24 water tenders and seven bulldozers, in addition to the aerial support.
“ For the most part, the fire has been actively burning in all directions,’ according to a news release from the incident- management team in charge of the firesuppression effort.
It stated: “ Near the northeast corner of the fire, below the Middle Fork of the Gila River, there was significant movement to the east ( Tuesday). The area around Willow Creek is looking secure, and only a few smokes have been visible.
“ All burnout operations around Mogollon are successfully creating a secure fire break around the community. The fire did spot (as a result of wind-blown embers) into the Whitewater Creek drainage, on the west side of the fi re, but there are no immediate threats. The fire is still active to the south, but is slowing (and) backing down drainages,’ officials wrote.
“ Aerial ignitions were used when fire established itself in drainages and began running upslope,’ an earlier news release stated. “ This tactic slowed the rate of fire advancement inareas ( in which the flames) had the potential to make a major run. … With the hotter and drier weather, fire activity increased ( Tuesday) throughout the fi re perimeter.
“ The fire was very active on all flanks. Along the northern perimeter, extreme fire behavior with running, torching and spotting (was) observed. Long-range spotting of up to one mile, with 100 percent probability of ignition, contributed to multiple spot fires acoss Forest Road 141.’
This morning, authorities reported that “ burnout operations along ( the road) are cooling off, and crews will begin mopping up any remaining hot spots.’
Winds from the west and south have blown most of the smoke away from the Silver City area in recent days. A shift in the wind brought a considerable amount of smoke into the area this morning.
“Due to winds coming from a more northwest direction today, communities south of the fire are likely to be ( affected) by the smoke,’ offi cials wrote. “ During these conditions, people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children should avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity outdoors.’
The Associated Press reported that the smoke has been visible as far away as Roswell.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D- N. M., a Silver City native, visited the firefighters’ base Tuesday at the Catron County Fairgrounds.
He received a briefing from the incident commander about the fire’s status and suppression strategies.
Bingaman announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved a request for a fire- management assistancedeclaration. The state is eligible for grants to pay for “ mitigation, management and control’ of fires on public and private forests and grasslands.
Under the terms of the grants, the federal government picks up 75 percent of firefighting expenses.
The cost of the suppression effort on the Whitewater-Baldy Complex already has exceeded $ 6 million,officials said.
The Forest Service and its Type I incident- management team ( the agency’s largest type of firefighting unit) hosted a public meeting Tuesday night at the Glenwood Community Center that drew a large crowd.
Some of those in attendance voiced concern not only about the immediate
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U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman made a trip to Reserve to tour the area of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire on Tuesday. Above, Bingaman, right, discusses safety for firefighters with Buck Seals, Gila National Forest safety officer. Bingaman also talked with Kelly Russell, Gila National Forest supervisor, about “fire behavior and protection of communities and improvements being conducted at Willow Creek and Mogollon,’ according to a news release.
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threat to their community, but also about future flooding that could result from the loss of trees and other vegetation.
Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday urged businesses affected by the fire to apply for low- interest loans from the Small Business Administration.
“ As a result of this fire, small businesses are unquestionably feeling the impact, and I want to make sure these businesses and their communities can take advantage of any assistance possible,’ Martinez said.
Extreme fire danger is pre-dicted today throughout southwest New Mexico, due to dry conditions and an expected increase in wind speed.
Officials urge residents and visitors to exercise extreme caution. Outside burning is discouraged, especially in the wind.
Jim Owen may be reached at [email protected] silvercitydaily press.net.