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Smoke from massive fire spreads across NM, Ariz.

Smoke from massive fire spreads across NM, Ariz.

May 26th, 2012 in News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Wildfires cast a pall over Memorial Day weekend in parts of the West Friday as smoke from a massive New Mexico blaze prompted air-quality warnings and thousands of firefighters were placed on standby in Colorado due to high winds and hot temperatures.

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 wilderness, which has grown to 70,000 acres or nearly 110 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.

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 in 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.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, officials said heavy air tankers and thousands of firefighters were on standby Friday as fire managers kept a close watch on high winds and hot temperatures at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. Fire danger remains high in the southern Colorado foothills and the South Park area.

Two heavy air tankers have been taken to Grand Junction in western Colorado, the area where the fire danger is highest in the state, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said.

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

Most of eastern Colorado 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.

The fire was 20 percent contained, said Nick Schuler, battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. No injuries or damage to structures were reported.

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 are being raised over fire crews' initial response to a backyard burn that rekindled two days later, destroyed two homes in the Topaz Ranch Estates, a rural Nevada community, and scorched 7,500 acres. A 911 recording obtained by the Associated Press showed a resident called about the fire Sunday by residents said volunteer firefighters with the East Fork Fire Protection District arrived at the scene and then left, apparently without extinguishing the fire.

The massive New Mexico blaze was being battled by more than 500 firefighters, but winds and erratic flames forced them to sit on the sidelines Thursday.

"We put into place a strategy to corral the slow-moving fire at ridge tops and natural rock cliffs soon after the Incident Commander John Pierson reported firefighters experiencing extremely hazardous conditions," Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell said. "The risk presented to firefighters outweighed the benefits of immediate and aggressive suppression given the fire is burning on slopes (upward) of 75 percent."