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Updated Jul 2, 2013 - 7:24 pm

Hearts heavy as firefighters battle blazes in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The burdens of a relentless heat wave and persistent
drought started to give way Monday to cooler temperatures and a little bit of
rain as hundreds of firefighters tried to rein in a pair of unruly blazes
burning through New Mexico’s tinder-dry forests.

They toiled on steep mountainsides to bolster fire lines and made preparations
to protect structures that might be in the path of the flames, just as they have
every day for the last couple of weeks.

Monday was different, though. Their work was done with heavy hearts.

Fire camps around New Mexico were solemn as news spread that 19 firefighters —
nearly all of them members of Arizona’s elite Granite Mountain Hotshots — were
killed Sunday after being overrun by flames near the community of Yarnell, Ariz.

One of the first orders of the day by the incident commanders assigned to the
Silver Fire — the largest blaze currently burning in New Mexico — was for their
crews to stand down before the morning briefing. The few moments were meant to
help them “collect their thoughts and to allow folks some time to just process
it,” said fire information officer Denise Croker.

“It’s pretty somber,” she said. “You can feel it in the camp. You can see it
in the camp.”

“Even though we’re from different states, we’re a small community,” she
added.

The loss was being felt just as much in northern New Mexico by those assigned
to the Jaroso Fire, which has blacked more than 17 square miles of the Pecos
Wilderness, including the headwaters of one of the state’s most popular fishing
spots.

And for the few crews remaining on the Thompson Ridge Fire, which raced through
part of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the deaths hit even closer to
home. The Granite Mountain Hotshots had helped on the fire just two weeks ago.

Gov. Susana Martinez said the team battled to protect lives and property.

“I join New Mexicans in keeping the families of these fallen firefighters in
our thoughts and prayers,” she said. “They are heroes who put themselves in
harm’s way to protect others, and for that, we are forever grateful.”

Santa Fe was also mourning the loss of the firefighters. The team had trained
and mentored many members of the city’s fire department.

The violent shift in wind that caught the Arizona Hotshots was part of a system
that passed over New Mexico earlier. Now, firefighters assigned to the Silver
and Jaroso fires are dealing with much cooler temperatures, double-digit
humidity levels and the possibility of afternoon rains.

Fire activity on both fires dropped somewhat Sunday and Monday, officials said.

Due to the dangerous conditions on the Jaroso Fire, crews were being cautious
about where to build fire lines. By Monday, there was no containment.

However, the Silver Fire was 50 percent contained. It has consumed more than
208 square miles of the Gila National Forest since being sparked by lightning on
June 7.

Fire officials and weather forecasters were also warning residents in the areas
of the fires, as well as those who live near other recent burn scars, to be
ready for potential flooding and high volumes of runoff as the summer rains
approach.

What moisture New Mexico has seen so far this summer has not been enough to put
a dent in the drought or lessen the fire danger.

“Just the conditions out here, even with these spotty rain showers, it’s still
dry. Very dry,” Croker said. “It’s still a heads-up for everyone.”


For volunteer, fundraising and other ways to assist those affected by the Yarnell Hill Fire, go to yarnellfallenfirefighters.com.

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