Heat, high winds threaten US wildfire lines

Updated: 2011-06-17 13:53


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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico - Firefighters trying to protect homes, a popular national park and tinder dry patches of forest were tested Thursday as temperatures peaked and winds started to whip up the flames of several wildfires burning throughout the Southwest.

Heat, high winds threaten US wildfire lines
A wildland firefighter extinguishes a hot spot on the eastern edge of the Wallow Wildfire outside Alpine, Arizona near the state border west of the town of Luna, New Mexico June 13, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]

Along the New Mexico-Colorado border, the winds pushed one fire toward breaks that had been carved into the rugged landscape by bulldozers. Crews had anticipated the fire's movement and were prepared to hold the line with help from helicopters and air tankers.

The winds were not as strong as expected, but fire officials said Thursday evening that the area was not out of danger.

"For the next couple of days we're still going to see gusty winds, very hot temperatures and dry conditions. It's possible we won't have a red-flag warning, but we will still see some weather conditions that will challenge our containment lines," fire information officer Denise Ottaviano said.

The fire had been sending up giant plumes of smoke that could be seen from Raton, New Mexico, each afternoon as the flames ate through nearly 26,000 acres (10,500 hectares) of rugged terrain along the state line.

Thursday was a little different. There were some columns of smoke on the northern side, but not as severe as earlier in the week, partly because crews had made progress on the southern flank and the winds were pushing out of the southwest and away from town.

The highway between Raton and Trinidad, Colo., reopened early Thursday after being closed for four days because of the blaze.

Some nearby residents were able to return home Wednesday and more evacuations were lifted Thursday, but residents who live closest to the eastern and some northwest of Raton remained out of their homes for another day.

Fire officials confirmed Thursday that eight homes and six other structures have been destroyed.

The nearly 700 firefighters battling the fire did experience some gusts Thursday and temperatures near triple digits. The humidity level was in the single digits, and similar weather conditions were expected through the weekend.

The wind also raised concerns among firefighters battling Arizona's largest blaze at 760 square miles (2,000 sq. kilometers), in the eastern part of the state. A pre-evacuation notice for an area in southeast Eagar was issued Thursday afternoon because of high winds and possible spot fires.

While there were no flames jumping along the ridge above the community like the previous week, fire information officer Richard Hadley said authorities wanted residents to be prepared. He said smoke could be seen rising from the hills to the south as flames kicked up in small unburned patches of vegetation within the fire perimeter.

Containment on the fire inched up to 33 percent Thursday, but more winds were predicted through the weekend.

Fire managers were concerned about the fire burning in the Blue Range area south of Alpine - the least secure part of firefighters' lines and closest to the nearest town still threatened, Luna, New Mexico, where about 200 people live.

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