ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two lightning-sparked blazes that merged in a mountainous southwestern New Mexico forest are close to becoming the largest wildfire in state history, fire officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. Forest Service said the erratic blaze in Gila National Forest had grown to about 152,000 acres by Tuesday — just 5,000 acres from breaking the state record. It is about 15 miles east of Glenwood, N.M., a small town with a few hundred residents.
More than 1,100 firefighters and nine helicopters from around the state were fighting the blaze. But officials said extremely low humidity will keep making efforts against the fire difficult.
The two lightning-sparked fires merged last week to form the giant blaze, which has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings. One fire was first spotted May 9 and the second blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds. Officials also said a "record breaking dry air mass" and persistent drought in the region contributed to the fire's growth.
Those winds forced crews to the sidelines last week as the fire rapidly spread in an isolated area and charred several homes in the community of Willow Creek, which remains under evacuation. Smoke has spread across New Mexico and parts of Arizona, putting cities as far away as Albuquerque under health alerts.
Officials said areas around some of New Mexico's largest cities, including Albuquerque and as far southeast as Roswell, will see smoke by late Tuesday.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman announced Tuesday that FEMA has approved New Mexico's request for fire management assistance declaration for the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex burning in Catron and Grant Counties. Bingaman visited Reserve, N.M., Tuesday and was briefed by the U.S. Forest Service on the fire.