Magdalena district firefighters help battle Whitewater-Baldy Complex blaze

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Engine 301 from Magdalena assisted crews from around New Mexico — along with an assist from the increasing humidity — get the largest fire in state history 5 percent contained on Thursday.

Courtesy Gila National Forest: Fire crews have been fighting fires in the Gila Wilderness for a long time, as depicted in this photo from 1951. But never in the state’s history has there been a fire as big as the Whitewater-Baldy Fire going now.

Four people from the Magdalena Ranger District have helped with the containment of this fast-moving fire. Daniel Martinez supervises an area near Reserve, and three others work Engine 301, a machine equipped to blast the fire with water, said Magdalena District Ranger Dennis Aldridge.

The people from Magdalena are part of a workforce of more than 1,200 firefighters, and the engine is one of 59 currently fighting the fire in the Gila.

The firefighters work 14 days before coming back to Magdalena for some rest, Aldridge said. A spike camp, which tends to be nearer to the frontlines of the fire, has been set up by these Magdalena firefighters and others near Reserve. The fighters sleep at this camp.

Because of the risk of smoke inhalation, people rotate in and out of shifts fighting the fire, Aldridge said. None of the fighters from Magdalena have been injured.

When lightning originally struck and sparked the blaze on May 16, officials were not very concerned because six smaller fires had happened in the same area in 2011, according to a spokesperson for the Gila National Forest. These multiple, smaller fires had cleared out much of the brush that would have fueled a small fire to grow to much larger proportions. Without this buildup, the fire was unlikely to become destructive.

However, the fire’s historic size — more than 190,000 acres have been burned already — can be attributed to the wilderness in which it started and the weather conditions at the time.

The very steep and very rough terrain of the Gila National Forest made getting to the fire difficult.

“We couldn’t get anyone in there,” said Iris Estes, the public information officer at the Whitewater-Baldy Complex.

Also, the dryness of the area due to the drought and the 80 mph winds the day of the lightning strike contributed to the fire’s rapid growth to more than a 100,000 acres in about a week, Estes said.

These conditions eliminated the need for a lot of brush and other readily-available flammable materials for the fire to start and to move quickly, she said.