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Record-setting New Mexico fire spreading in all directions; may be preview for other Western states

By Russell Contreras

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 31 2012 3:54 p.m. MDT

REVERE, N.M. — A massive wildfire in the New Mexico wilderness that already is the largest in state history spread in all directions Thursday, and experts say it's likely a preview of things to come as states across the West contend with a dangerous recipe of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.

The erratic Gila National Forest blaze grew overnight to more than 190,000 acres, or nearly 300 square miles, as it raced across the area's steep, ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons.

More than 1,200 firefighters are at the massive blaze near the Arizona border, which has destroyed 12 cabins and a few small outbuildings, fire information officer Iris Estes said.

Experts say persistent drought, climate change and shifts in land use and firefighting strategies mean other western states likely will see similar giant fires this season.

"We've been in a long drought cycle for the last 20 years, and conditions now are great for these type of fires," said Steve Pyne, author of "Tending Fire. Coping with America's Wildland Fires" and a life science professor at Arizona State University. "Everything is in line."

Agencies in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and other western states are bracing for the worst. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email notification systems to warn of wildfires, and most states have enlisted crews from nearby states to be ready when the big ones come.

"It's highly likely that these fires are going to get so big that states are going to need outside resources to fight them," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center.

According to the National Weather Service, a dry climate is expected to prolong drought conditions across the Great Basin and central Rockies during the fire season. Large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will remain under severe drought conditions.

"We're transitioning from La Nina to El Nino so we have no guidance to what's going to happen, like if we will get more rain or less rain," said Ed Polasko, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

And it's unclear what type of relief will come from monsoon season, which starts in mid-July, since experts say it's difficult to predict what areas in the West will benefit, Sullens said.

A lack of moisture means fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere could pose a problem since states received no sustained snow or rain this winter and spring.

That's what happened in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.

Typically fires in the area don't cross the middle fork of the Gila River, said Danny Montoya, a member of the fire's incident command team.

"This year, it did get across," Montoya said. "We're getting humidity level during the day about 2 to 3 percent. Normally, during summer you'd see 5 to 12 percent."

The two-week-old Gila forest fire is the largest wildfire burning in the country. Its size this week surpassed New Mexico's last record fire, a blaze last year that charred 156,593 acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.

Officials on Thursday closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument due to smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure would remain in effect until conditions improve.

Montoya said he wouldn't be surprise if smoke from the fire remained until monsoon season since the fire is burning in rough areas and it's difficult for crews to fight it head-on.

Estes said the blaze is 5 percent contained.

"We're continuing with burnout operations and we've been helped with a slight rise in humidity and decreased winds," she said.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez was scheduled to fly over the fire Thursday to survey the damage.

Other reasons states in the West will see more massive fires this season is because, coupled with drought and dry climate, crews have experienced changes in firefighting strategies and agencies have changed some policies in fighting wildfires in isolated areas, Pyne said.

"In the last 20 years or so, agencies have generally been reluctant to put firefighters at risk in remote areas," Pyne said. "It wasn't like that decades ago."

Instead, he said agencies have focused attention on burnout operations until conditions are safe to begin containment.

Not that those practices and the larges fires are bad things, Pyne said. For example, he said the Gila Wilderness has been a target for controlled burns.

"So maybe," Pyne said, "this is how it's supposed to happen."

Contreras reported from Albuquerque.

Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM and Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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