Fire in the Southwest
A record-setting wildfire burns in New Mexico
A massive wildfire that began four weeks ago continues to rage across southwestern New Mexico. The Whitewater-Baldy blaze has burned nearly 400 square miles of the Gila National Forest. It is the biggest recorded wildfire in New Mexico’s history.
More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze, which began as two separate wildfires caused by lightning strikes. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Baldy fire started May 9, and the Whitewater fire began May 16, several miles away. The two fires merged on May 23.
Strong winds, low humidity (levels of moisture in the air), and extreme drought have caused the blaze to spread. A drought is an extended period of time with little or no rain. Trees and brush can become very dry, allowing them to burn easily.
The fire has destroyed a dozen cabins and forced the evacuation of the small town of Mogollon, New Mexico. Because of rugged terrain and steep canyons, firefighters have been unable to access much of the area to battle the blaze directly. Thick smoke has also prevented direct attack from the air. Crews have been forced to fight the fire indirectly by starving it of fuel around its borders.
Experts say the blaze could continue to burn until July, when rainier weather typically arrives. They say other Western states—including Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado—risk similar wildfires this season. Many counties have created emergency telephone and e-mail systems to warn residents of wildfires, and most states have lined up fire crews from other areas to be ready to help.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently keeping an eye on two packs of Mexican gray wolves that live near the Whitewater-Baldy fire. Officials are worried that the wolves, which are endangered, won’t be able to escape the fire with their pups.
Luckily, firefighters made a lot of progress controlling the fire over the past weekend—especially the northeastern portions. Mogollon residents were allowed to return to their homes today. Milder weather over the next few days should allow crews to contain even more of the fire.
Fire-information officer Lee Bentley told the Associated Press, “We’re going to continue fighting this fire aggressively without putting our firefighters in danger.”