New Mexico wildfire spreads smoke across state

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By RUSSELL CONTRERAS, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Firefighters are battling a massive wildfire in southwestern New Mexico that has destroyed a dozen cabins and spread smoke across the state, prompting holiday weekend air-quality warnings.

The fire burned early Saturday through remote and rugged terrain around the Gila Wilderness and has grown to 85,000 acres or more than 130 square miles.

The heavy smoke apparently disoriented six hikers Friday, prompting the New Mexico National Guard to carry out a rescue.

Col. Michael Montoya said one of them had an injured knee and had to be taken to safety by ambulance. The others were able to walk to a secure area.

More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze that resulted from the merger earlier this week of two lightning-sparked fires. Fire officials say nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds.

The blaze has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings, and the privately owned ghost town of Mogollon was placed under a voluntary evacuation order.

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.

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 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, where the fire danger is highest, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said.

"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 3,100 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 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. Two homes and 17 outbuildings were destroyed.

District Fire Chief Tod Carlini did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

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Associated Press writers Rema Rahman in Denver and Sandra Chereb in Carson City, Nev., contributed to this report.

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