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U.S. Forest chief surveys NM wildfire

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A rugged swath of forest in southwestern New Mexico
was pumping out more columns of smoke Tuesday as U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell
surveyed the burn scar being left behind by what has developed into the largest
wildfire currently burning in the nation.

Tidwell took an aerial tour of the blaze, which has scorched more than 404
square miles since being sparked by lightning about three weeks ago. The fire
became the largest in New Mexico’s recorded history after making daily runs
across tens of thousands of acres as winds whipped fiercely.

Tidwell and other federal officials had predicted this would be a busy fire
season as drought sweeps across a broader section of the West, leaving overgrown
forests even more susceptible than last year.

“Even when you have the resources in place, you get the right conditions — the
hot, dry winds, the very dry fuels — that’s when we will not be able to
successfully suppress these fires during initial attack, and then we get the
large fires,” he told The Associated Press during a late-April visit to New
Mexico.

That’s what has happened in southwestern New Mexico with the Whitewater-Baldy
fire.

More than 1,100 firefighters have been assigned to the 259,000-acre blaze.
There have been only a handful of minor injuries, but firefighting efforts
elsewhere have turned deadly.

Over the weekend, two pilots were killed when their air tanker crashed while
fighting a fire in southern Utah.

Tidwell was expected to discuss the crash during a news conference later
Tuesday at the U.S. Forest Service’s regional headquarters in Albuquerque.

Firefighters in southern New Mexico were building fire lines and conducting
more burnout operations to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire from making any
aggressive runs along its boundaries. That way, crews could control the severity
of the burn, said fire information officer Gerry Perry.

“We still have active fire within the perimeter, but they’re a little more
comfortable that they’ve got a handle on it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the
fire is over, but things are looking better.”

Crews in the northern part of the state were also working Tuesday to contain a
lightning-sparked blaze in the Santa Fe National Forest. The smoke could be see
dozens of miles away in Rio Rancho, N.M.

Forest officials said that fire started Sunday night and had burned about 180
acres southeast of Jemez Springs. No structures were being threatened, and no
evacuations were planned.