Fire in Gila already one of state’s largest ever

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The Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire burning in the Gila Wilderness in southern Catron County had scorched 152,012 acres, as of Tuesday morning. That’s nearly 5,000 acres shy of the total acreage burned last summer in New Mexico’s largest-ever wildfire, the Las Conchas Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, according to an incident report on www.inciweb.org.

Lighter winds helped firefighters start control measures along the mountainous forest lands. Last week, strong winds forced crews to the sidelines as the fire rapidly spread in an isolated region of southwestern New Mexico, destroying a dozen homes and several in the community of Willow Creek, which remains under evacuation. No other communities were threatened.

Denise Ottaviano, a spokeswoman for the crew fighting the blaze, said since the winds slowed, the fire hasn’t made a significant push toward the small, privately owned ghost town of Mogollon. However, nearby residents were forced to evacuate.

The lightning-caused fire, which was sparked on May 16, was still 0 percent contained on Tuesday, according to fire officials. Dry conditions along with extreme terrain were making it difficult to fight, U.S. Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said.

Five injuries had been reported in connection with the fire.

The community of Mogollon remains under a mandatory evacuation order, and several road, trail and area closures are in effect, including the closure of the Catwalk National Recreation Trail in the Gila National Forest.

Stephanie Padilla, owner of Mario’s Pizza and Video on Highway 180 in Glenwood, said it wasn’t the fire that had her worried. It was the lack of business. The Memorial Day weekend, she said, is usually a profitable time for local businesses, as people stop in town on their way to the Catwalk National Recreation Trail.

That wasn’t the case Monday, she said, as cars drove on through without stopping in the small town that is just a few miles west of the fire.

“The town is dead,” she said. “I even opened early this weekend, and I’ve not done too well.”

Smoke advisories are in effect, and areas around Albuquerque, Belen, Socorro, Magdalena and Carrizozo were expected to see smoke this week. Areas to the south, and as far southeast as Roswell, were also expected to see smoke.

On Sunday, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez authorized the deployment of 15 National Guard soldiers to help secure areas around the fire.

According to an Associated Press report on Tuesday, more than 1,000 firefighters from around the state were battling the fire. Assisting in the efforts around 15 miles east of Glenwood were nine helicopters and 49 fires engines. It was described as an erratic blaze that has quickly become one of the largest fires in state history.

A community meeting to provide updates on strategies for suppressing the blaze was held Tuesday night at the Glenwood Community Center.