Wildfires evacuate 3 New Mexico communities

Published 5:47 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Authorities have asked residents in two separate areas of New Mexico to leave their homes, which are threatened by a series of wildfires that broke out around the state.

There’s no immediate end in sight to what has been an almost constant battle against wildfires — fanned by wind and dry conditions — this year throughout the state, officials said.

“It’ll be over when it starts raining,” state Forestry Division spokesman Dan Ware said Tuesday. “We’re hoping for good seasonal moisture, but that isn’t going to start happening until probably July. We’re starting to add lightning to the mix.”

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A handful of the fires so far this year were started by lightning, but most have been human-caused.  

Crews have battled almost 30 fires on state and private land in New Mexico since Saturday alone. Those fires, some of which are still burning, have charred more than 49 square miles. Several have burned or threatened houses or other structures.  

The count does not include a fire burning since April 28 that has charred an additional 73 square miles in and near the Gila Wilderness.

Since the beginning of the year, New Mexico has reported 455 fires that have scorched more than 650 square miles.

About 50 residents of the southeastern New Mexico community of Queen were urged to evacuate after a wildfire started near the village about midnight Monday, destroying one house and damaging three others. Multiple structures remain threatened, officials said.

An estimated 1,500 acres of pinon, juniper and grass on Lincoln National Forest and private land have burned. The blaze also forced the closure of state highway 137 at Dark Canyon.

Smoke from the blaze was visible in nearby Carlsbad, Ware said.

An air tanker dropped fire retardant on part of the fire Tuesday morning, but high winds grounded the plane before noon.

All of southeast New Mexico was under a warning Tuesday for high winds and low humidity.

Residents of the Sacramento Mountain village of Mayhill who were asked to leave Monday because of a blaze burning two miles west of the village were allowed to return home Tuesday night, authorities said. The fire was 20 percent contained and had charred an estimated 10,240 acres.

“It’s burning in pretty steep, rugged terrain,” said fire information officer Joel Arnwine, adding that the area is dry and the wind has been gusting between 30-40 mph.

Arnwine said a damage assessment determined that the fire destroyed three homes, three commercial-government buildings and nine outbuildings and damaged two other outbuildings. In addition, 13 damaged power poles had to be replaced.

The fire burning in the rugged Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico had officials asking residents on Sunday to leave about 35 homes in the tiny community of Gila Hot Springs. The blaze also forced the closure of the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitors Center, several campgrounds and a state highway.

Fire officials planned drops of water from helicopters Tuesday “until the winds pick up and the helicopters aren’t able to fly anymore,” said fire information officer Brian Martinez.

Two grass fires broke out Monday in southeastern New Mexico, and officials briefly evacuated a Baptist church and school on the west side of Roswell as a result of one of the fires. It wasn’t immediately known what started that fire or how many acres it had burned.

The second fire, farther southeast near the small community of Maljamar, burned 1,000 acres as winds drove it northward.

Another grass fire that broke out Monday in Torrance County east of Albuquerque burned 710 acres before it was under control, and a lightning-sparked fire spotted Friday 15 miles northwest of Hope in southern New Mexico had grown to 28 square miles by Tuesday and was 80 percent contained.

Another fire was spotted Tuesday in Santa Fe County near the Galisteo Creek. Fire officials said the flames had burned about 24 acres of private land and were a half-mile from several homes.