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Gila Fire Damage Not As Severe As Las Conchas Fire of 2011

UPDATE 6/6 (6:00 PM)


Fire-crews continue to make progress with the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire- it has burned over 263,000 acres and is 22% contained. 

Fire Information Officer Linda Torgersen Gonzales says, so far, the damage assessment team hasn't seen severe destruction like that caused last year by the Las Conchas.

"There weren't very many areas where the fire was so hot that it scorched the ground like you see with some of the raging fires," Gonzales says, "This one has been much more moderate."

The damage assessment team will be reporting over the next several weeks on the full extent of the destruction, including soil conditions, wildlife, vegetation, and run-off potentials. 

The flames are moving downhill towards the town of Glenwood, but fire-fighters are confident their containment lines will hold. 

UPDATE 6/6 (6:30 AM)

Without high winds fanning the blaze, the enormous wildfire in the Gila National Forest is slowing down as it moves out of rugged ponderosa-conifer forests into juniper and pinon landscapes that are less fire-friendly.  Jerry Perry says the fire is 22% contained and that the town of Glenwood is not at risk even though the fire continues to burn nearby.  

Perry says fire officials are hopeful the containment levels will continue to increase over the next few days if weather patterns remain stable. 

The fire has grown to over 263,000 acres and is the largest in state history.

UPDATE 6/4 (9:00AM)

Fire officials say helicopters flew over the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire, dropping ping-pong size ignition materials to burn trees, shrubs and grasses beyond the perimeter of the wildfire.  This aerial ignition strategy is used when the terrain is too difficult for fire-fighters to manage.  

Linda Torgerson Gonzales, Fire Information Officer with the Type I Incident Management Team, says crews making good progress along the western perimeter of the fire.  Winds 20-30 mph are in the forecast, meaning near-critical fire weather conditions with higher than normal temperatures and low humidity will continue to complicate fire-fighting efforts this week. 

UPDATE 6/3 (12:00PM)

Areas along the northwestern perimeter of the fire are "black-lined" according to fire officials.  That means fuels have been back-burned so that as the fire moves forward there is little left to burn and the fire dies down.  Several spot fires were caught in time this weekend.  Embers can fly up to 3/4 mi. when fire behavior is extreme. 

Fire Information Officer Heather O'Hanlon says the current weather pattern with some erratic winds is expected to persist through at least the middle of the week.  

The fire is moving into less rugged terrain along the southwestern flank as it heads into pinon-juniper forests where fire-fighting is less complicated. 

UPDATE 6/2 (4:00 PM)

An elite group of fire-fighters are ready to deploy to fight the fire, but fire officials say the fire conditions are too dangerous.  Lee Bentley says heli-rappellers are staging so that when conditions are good, they can drop from helicopters into particularly hot parts of the fire to put them out.  

Residents of Mogollon were told today they will be able to return to their homes on Monday.  The Willow Creek community remains under mandatory evacuation.  

UPDATE 6/2 (11:00AM)

The largest fire in New Mexico history has torched over 350 square miles of rugged wilderness in the Gila National Forest.  Officials say they are bracing for 22-28 mph winds, just shy of the 35 mph gusts that would indicate Red Flag warnings and critical fire weather conditions. 

Lee Bentley, Fire Information Officer with the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire incident team, says extreme fire behavior is possible today.  Flying embers from the blaze can spot 3/4 mi. out and Bentley says there's likely a 100% chance the embers will ignite fuels. 

UPDATE 5/31 (9:00 PM)

The Whitewater Baldy Complex fire grew to 197,000 acres today but firefighters are hoping calmer winds will aid in their efforts to corral the blaze.  

UPDATE 5/31 (4:20PM)

Governor Susana Martinez flew over the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire and is meeting with the incident management team coordinating the firefighting efforts at the rodeo grounds in Reserve, New Mexico.  

Officials have closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument due to smoke from the fire. 

Fire information officer Iris Estes says a slight increase in humidity and calmer winds are in the forecast which should help crews manage the blaze which has grown to nearly 200,ooo acres and is 5% contained.  

UPDATE 5/31 (10:00AM)

The Whitewater Baldy Complex fire has grown to over 190,000 acres and is 5% contained.  Winds were relatively calm overnight and firefighters were able to do back-burns to eliminate fuels.

Fire Information Officer Iris Estes says the incident team is bracing for gusty winds forecasted for this afternoon and evening which will create conditions that are more dangerous for the crew.

UPDATE 5/30 (9:00PM)

The largest active wildfire in the country is breaking records in New Mexico.  The fire is 5 percent contained but firefighters are bracing for gusty winds and extreme fire behavior.

The Whitewater Baldy Complex fire was sparked by lightning earlier this month and quickly grew to over 170-thousand acres, the largest in New Mexico history.

Over 1200 firefighters are working to corral the flames but erratic winds are expected to complicate their efforts.  Fire Information Officer Iris Estes says, "It's just too dangerous for them to be doing back-burning or any of that stuff, they can continue to build lines and dozer lines."

The blaze has destroyed a dozen homes and caused the evacuation of several small rural communities as it burns in rugged terrain in southwestern New Mexico near the Arizona border. 


UPDATE 5/29 (9:00AM)

Officials say the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire will soon become the largest in New Mexico history.  At 152,000 acres as of this morning, the fire is 0% contained, growing in all directions,  and still exhibiting some extreme fire activity in places.  

Fire Information Officer Jerry Perry says years of drought and low humidities are making the fire difficult for crews to fight.  Communities on the western and northern perimeters of the fire are threatened and over 1,100 firefighters are battling the blaze. 

The Las Conchas fire last year was the state's largest wildfire.  It charred over 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains. 

UPDATE 5/29 (6:20AM)

Low humidities and windy conditions fanned the Whitewater Baldy Complex Monday and the potential for the fire to grow remains high.  The  Incident Information System website reports over 1100 firefighters are working the blaze.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, will visit the damage from the wildfire today, after cancelling his plans to participate in several other events.  

UPDATE 5/28  (8:20AM)
From the Incident Information Systemwebsite:

Light winds are expected today, which should help slow the fire down. However, drier air has moved into the region, which will increase the potential for extreme conditions as the fire burns through steep terrain with heavy fuels. The lighter winds will allow for the use of helicopters as needed...

The town of Mogollon remains under mandatory evacuation.  The Catwalk National Recreation Trail is also closed until further notice.  On a positive note. officials say the fire is slowing in certain areas where there have been previous prescribed burns.  A community meeting is planned for Tuesday, May 29, at 6:00 pm at the Glenwood Community Center.

From the NMfireinfo site:

Smoke from the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire will be less dense today and will shift more toward the northeast and east. Areas south of Albuquerque such as Belen, Socorro, Magdalena and Carrizozo will see smoke through the day, and areas as far to the southeast as Roswell will see smoke tonight.


UPDATE 5/25 (12:00 PM)

The Whitewater Baldy Complex Wildfire in the Gila National Forest has now grown to 82,252 acres.  According to the Incident Information System website:

Fire behavior was not as extreme as was observed the previous two days. The complex continues to burn in steep, rugged terrain consisting of mixed conifer and continues to be primarily wind and terrain driven.

The fire remains 0% contained as firefighters have been hampered by the rough terrain and extreme fire behavior.  Officials say firefighters have succeeded in putting out several spot fires ahead of the fire's north end.  High winds are predicted to continue through tomorrow.


UPDATE 5/24 (5:53 PM)

Officials now say the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Wildfire has burned through 70,000 acres, making it the largest in the nation so far this year.  It remains 0% contained.

There are now 451 people on the scene, with firefighters arriving from places as far afield as South Dakota and Idaho.

At least a dozen homes and several outbuildings were destroyed in Willow Creek.

Despite all the activity, spokeswoman Iris Estes says visitors are still welcome in the Gila this holiday weekend...though she recommends call the Forest Supervisor in Silver City for suggestions on where to go.


(6:00 AM) Fire crews say two lightning-sparked wildfires in southwestern New Mexico have merged and have burned through the tiny summer community of Willow Creek.  The Whitewater-Baldy Complex remains entirely uncontained, according to a Thursday morning post on the nmfireinfo.com website.  A voluntary-evacuation of the town of Mogollon is now in effect.

On Wednesday, fire information officer Iris Estes said high winds have been making the fire erratic. The 435-person crew has been forced to pull back and air support was grounded. 

There are some road closures in the area and all trails to the west of the Gila Cliff Dwellings are closing.  Officials are warning people to exercise caution throughout the entire Gila Wilderness due to recent lightning and fire activity.

Smoke from the fires is expected to impact areas as far away as Tucumcari.  

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.