Smoke from massive fire spreads across NM, Ariz.

May 25, 2012 - 7:40 PM
New Mexico Wildfires

This Tuesday, May 22, 2012, photo, provided by David Thornburg shows a plume of smoke rising from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire managers said the blaze had charred more than 10,000 acres before merging Wednesday afternoon with the nearby 11,500-acre Baldy fire. Both fires were sparked by lightning. (AP Photo/David Thornburg)

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 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.

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 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 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.

___

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