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Fire and smoke spread across southwest

By Russell Contreras

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 9:10 p.m. MDT

Firefighter Jay Dimoff, of the San Bernardino County Fire Department, yells to his crew as they try to keep fire from crossing a San Diego County road Friday, May 25, 2012, near Julian, Calif. The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon east of Julian near Banner Grade. About 100 homes were temporarily evacuated in the Shelter Valley area along Highway 78 during the early stages of the fire but that order was lifted late Thursday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Wildfires cast a pall over Memorial Day weekend in parts of the West on Friday as smoke from a massive New Mexico blaze prompted widespread air-quality warnings and high fire danger in Colorado spurred officials to put thousands of firefighters on standby.

The privately owned ghost town of Mogollon was placed under a voluntary evacuation order as firefighters worked to tame the wildfire in the southwestern New Mexico woods, which has grown to 85,000 acres or more than 130 square miles.

Two lightning-sparked fires merged Wednesday to form the giant Gila Wilderness blaze, which has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings. The Baldy fire was first spotted May 9 and the Whitewater blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds.

More than 500 firefighters were battling the blaze.

The strong winds pushed ash from the blaze 35 to 40 miles away, while smoke from the giant fire spread across the state and into Arizona. The haze blocked views of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, and a smell of smoke permeated the air throughout northern New Mexico.

Health officials as far away as Albuquerque and Santa Fe issued alerts for the holiday weekend, advising people to limit outdoor activities, keep windows closed and avoid swamp coolers.

They said the effects on most people would be minor but noted mild throat and eye irritation or allergy-like symptoms could be expected. Officials warned people with heart and lung conditions to be especially diligent in minimizing their exposure to the smoky air.

"We've got the resources. We've got the firefighters," Segin said. "We're ready."

The National Weather Service said wind gusts could reach 70 mph Saturday in some western Colorado valleys, with sustained winds of 25 to 40 mph. Most of eastern Colorado also was under a high-wind watch, with sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph and gusts up to 55 mph possible Saturday.

In Southern California, firefighters worked to corral a wildfire that has chewed through 2,500 acres of tinder-dry grass and light brush since it broke out Thursday afternoon east of Julian.

On Friday, the fire forced about 50 people to evacuate an RV park in San Diego County. It earlier prompted the evacuation of about 100 homes in the Shelter Valley area, but residents were allowed to return late Thursday.

In Arizona, residents of the historic mining town of Crown King were allowed to return home after being evacuated because of a wildfire about 85 miles north of Phoenix. The fire started May 13 and has burned more than 16,000 acres. It is 35 percent contained, fire officials said.

In Nevada, questions were being raised over fire crews' initial response to a backyard burn that rekindled two days later, destroying two homes in a rural community and scorching 7,500 acres.

A 911 recording obtained by The Associated Press showed a resident called Sunday to report that a neighbor's permitted burn in the Topaz Ranch Estates was out of control. Volunteer firefighters with the East Fork Fire Protection District arrived at the scene and then left, apparently without extinguishing the blaze.

Gusty winds rekindled the fire Tuesday, and it spread quickly through thick brush and dry grasses.

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