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Heat, strong winds hinder battle to contain wildfires

The Rio Bravo Hot Shots, of Kern County, Calif., worked their way along a trail yesterday to a fire line near Raton, N.M., where several hundred people in the mountains were evacuated. The Rio Bravo Hot Shots, of Kern County, Calif., worked their way along a trail yesterday to a fire line near Raton, N.M., where several hundred people in the mountains were evacuated. (Rick Bowmer/ Associated Press)
By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press / June 18, 2011

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ALBUQUERQUE — High winds and hot weather hampered firefighters’ efforts yesterday to protect homes, tinder-dry patches of forest, and stretches of high desert from several wildfires burning throughout the Southwest.

Along the New Mexico-Colorado border, winds were expected to gust to 35 miles per hour in the afternoon, pushing flames from one blaze toward breaks carved into the rugged landscape by bulldozers. Fire officials said the wind might prevent water-dropping helicopters and air tankers from helping ground crews.

“It’s going to be a challenge for our firefighters along the northern and eastern sides of the fire,’’ said fire information officer Tim Evans. “Spotting is likely to occur in those areas as the winds push the fire toward the north and east.’’

The fire has raced across more than 27,000 acres along the New Mexico-Colorado border, burning eight homes and six other structures and forcing the evacuation of several hundred people in the mountains near Raton, N.M. Most of the residents have been allowed to return home, with the exception of those near the eastern flank and some to the northwest of Raton.

Firefighters were focused yesterday on keeping the fire from pushing farther into Colorado. In that state, more than 7,100 acres have burned since the fire started Sunday.

Crews have created lines with bulldozers to keep the flames in check on the northern end. They will work to bolster those lines and continue mop-up operations elsewhere on the fire’s perimeter.

More than 800 firefighters were assigned to the Colorado blaze. In addition to the winds, they were bracing for a hot and dry weekend.

In eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, thousands of firefighters continued to battle the largest wildfire in Arizona’s recorded history. The Wallow fire has consumed 773 square miles (about 495,000 acres).

A preevacuation notice for an area in southeast Eagar, Ariz., remained in effect because of high winds and possible spot fires.

Containment on the Wallow fire remained at 33 percent yesterday, but more winds were predicted through the weekend, with gusts of 50 miles per hour possible.

“We’re kind of keeping our fingers crossed for the next three days because of the predictions,’’ fire information officer Richard Hadley said.

Fire managers were concerned about the fire burning in the Blue Range area south of Alpine, Ariz. — the least secure part of firefighters’ lines and the closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, N.M., where about 200 people live.

More than 4,600 firefighters are assigned to the Arizona fire.

Investigators believe a single campfire was the fire’s most likely cause.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor Chris Knopp said investigators have questioned two people but he declined to say any more. He called them “persons of interest,’’ not suspects.

In Arizona, about 2,400 people remain evacuated from Alpine and Greer, and smaller vacation enclaves after about 300 were allowed to return to Nutrioso on Wednesday. Last Sunday, all 7,000 people evacuated from Springerville and Eagar were allowed to go home.

The blaze became the largest in Arizona history Wednesday, exceeding a 2002 fire that burned 732 square miles and destroyed 491 buildings.

Though larger in size, the latest fire has destroyed 32 homes and four rental cabins.

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