Sawmill Fire south of Magdalena burns 135 acres

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A fire that was ignited south of Magdalena on Saturday afternoon has grown to an estimated 135 acres, but firefighters and officials have taken measures that will hopefully keep the smoldering ground fire to a manageable size.

An infrared light at 1 a.m. on Tuesday showed the fire at 101 acres.

The Sawmill Fire, burning about 13 miles south of Magdalena, flared up at around 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon. The cause of the fire, according to Jim Apodaca, public information officer for the Gila-Las Cruces Type 3 Team, was a lightening strike.

By the time personnel were able to assess the size of the fire, about two hours after it was lit, it had grown to an approximate 40 acres. The Type 3 Team, which serves to provide leadership and interagency cooperation along with local district fire personnel, was called in about 5 p.m. the same day.

Even though the fire showed signs of growth on Saturday evening and Sunday, Apodaca is hopeful that fire suppression actions will have it remain at around its current size.

“The way the tactics have worked so far, and with the fire behavior they’re seeing, it (the spreading) is real minimal at this time,” Apodaca said. “As long as they don’t get any rollout or spot fires, at this time it’s looking pretty favorable.”

According to a GLZ Type 3 Team press release, firefighters are improving the fire line along the ridge that separates Sawmill and Ryan Hill Canyons, and looking for more opportunities to check the spread of the fire on the south and west flanks.

However, the fire is located in unaccommodating steep and rocky terrain, so it’s too dangerous to send in personnel directly, Apodaca said. Therefore, two Type 2 helicopters and a twin-engine wildfire Modular spotter plane are utilizing retardant and water drops in an attempt to halt the spread of the blaze, which appear to be working.

Apodaca said there are small pockets that appear to show signs of torching or crowning, or, in other words, the fire has burned all the way up to the top of the trees in some spots, but also that at least half or more of the blaze could be considered ground fire.

In addition to trying to control the size and stature of the fire, crews are also tasked with protecting Langmuir Laboratory, which sits atop Magdalena Ridge, as well as a Mexican spotted owl habitat.

The lab, which conducts atmospheric research, is roughly three miles northwest of the fire’s current position. While it’s in no real danger, measures are still in place to protect the lab should the situation change.

“They’re making plans on how to protect the facility,” Apodaca said. “If it looks like (the fire) could become a threat, they might take some action.”

Protecting the Mexican spotted owl habitat, which extends from southern Utah into Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, is also an objective for fire crews.

“It’s important to really protect as much of that habitat as we can,” Apodaca said.

There were originally a total of 140 personnel assisting in fighting the fire that included air and ground personnel. At about 1 a.m. Tuesday, an airplane equipped with infrared technology mapped out the fire, and although it’s still burning hot in a few places, it hasn’t moved much. Thus, an unspecified number of personnel were being taken off of the fire as of Tuesday morning.

Firefighter and safety public are a top priority for officials, said Apodaca.

Currently, Forest Road 235 to the top of Magdalena Ridge is off-limits to the public, and no structures are listed as being in danger.