ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Winds and erratic flames forced firefighters to sit on the sidelines Thursday as a massive fire that destroyed a dozen homes and several other structures in small New Mexico community grew larger and put more buildings at risk.
Tripling in size over the last day, the lightning-sparked Whitewater and Baldy fires merged to burn across more than 110 square miles of the Gila National Forest by Thursday.
“At this point it’s just a monitoring situation to see whether (crews) can find some place where they can build lines or do something to slow it down,” said fire information officer Iris Estes.
The wind-whipped fire burned Wednesday afternoon through the Willow Creek subdivision, a small summer community in southwestern New Mexico. Officials confirmed 12 cabins along with seven small outbuildings were destroyed, and the damage assessment continued Thursday.
Fire managers said employees with the State Forestry Division and the U.S. Forest Service would be contacting property owners.
While some residents questioned whether fire managers could have done more early on to contain the blaze, others acknowledged that fighting flames in the area’s steep canyons was near impossible now.
“The fire had been around about 10 days, lurking and creeping and then kaboom, it exploded,” said Tabitha Sims, secretary of the Willow Creek Landowners Association. “They made a heroic effort at trying to build a break, but I think it was unfortunate that this wind event happened to come right at the worst time.”
Sims, an Arizona resident who owns a cabin at Willow Creek, said parts of the area were vulnerable due to a lack of fire over decades. She described Willow Creek as “an incredibly special spot” where generations of families have spent their summers.
“The people who have lifelong memories of going there, I just feel for them,” she said.
Seven Willow Creek residents evacuated earlier this week, and the community of Mogollon was under voluntary evacuation. Authorities said many structures were still at risk.
Firefighters were anticipating winds of up to 35 mph late Thursday afternoon.
In northern Nevada, high winds also were expected in an area where a fire broke out Tuesday, burned 7,500 acres and damaged two homes. Crews near the Nevada-California line raced to secure a line above a second rural community Thursday before the winds kicked up.
In the Gila National Forest, the flames have raced across more than 70,500 acres of rugged terrain. 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 thanks to relentless winds.
There is no containment.
The blaze is about half the size of last summer’s historic Las Conchas fire, the largest in the state’s recorded history. That blaze burned 156,593 acres and destroyed dozens of homes in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains.
With drought conditions persisting, New Mexico forestry officials have been urging residents to take precautions to help avoid another record fire season.
Many trails in the Gila region were off-limits due to the Whitewater-Baldy fire and more could be closed as the blaze continues to burn.
About 10 miles to the southeast, volunteers and staff at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument have been watching the column of smoke develop each afternoon.
“The plume above us yesterday was truly awesome. It was scary awesome,” said volunteer Dave Young.
The monument was not in any immediate danger, but Young described conditions in the area as “bone dry.”
“We’re talking single-digit humidity in the afternoon. We’ve been down to 1 percent, and you can’t get below 1 percent,” he said.
Aside from low humidity and high temperatures, Estes said crews were expecting the red flag conditions to last through Saturday.
More than 400 personnel were assigned to the fire.
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM