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Historic drought fuels season's first wildfire in New Mexico
June 1, 2013 / 8:08 PM / 4 years ago

Historic drought fuels season's first wildfire in New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M., June 1 (Reuters) - A wildfire caused by a downed power line in New Mexico’s rugged Pecos wilderness has forced the evacuation of 150 homes and consumed 5,300 acres (2,145 hectares) of forest in the grip of a historic drought, officials said on Saturday.

The Tres Lagunas fire, New Mexico’s first major blaze of the dry season, started on Thursday and was zero percent contained by midday on Saturday.

Hot temperatures, extreme dry conditions and wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour (80 kph) whipped the flames through steep mountainous terrain, said U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Iris Estes.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 98 percent of New Mexico had severe drought conditions, with 44 percent in exceptional drought, the highest rating available.

“This is a historic drought. We haven’t seen a drought like this since the 1950s,” said Dan Ware with New Mexico’s State Forestry agency.

Fire threatened homes along Highway 63, and about 150 houses, both full-time and seasonal residences, had been evacuated. About 300 emergency personnel, including five crews of specialized firefighters, were on the scene, with more expected to arrive as the blaze grew, Estes said.

“On Thursday, firefighters closed off Highway 63 and were trying to get everyone out. But before we could get enough resources on it, it just took off,” Estes said.

On Friday, Governor Susana Martinez declared a state of emergency in San Miguel County.

“Fire crews continue to make headway on the Tres Lagunas fire, but the next several days will require a great deal of coordination to keep New Mexicans safe,” the governor said.

Fire officials conducted an infrared assessment flight on late Friday. Early estimates of 2,000 acres (810 hectares) were adjusted to 5,300 acres of Ponderosa pine forest burned.

Farther east in Santa Fe, a second blaze was ignited on Friday in the Santa Fe National Forest, and had encroached on the Valles Caldera National Preserve, Ware said. The Thompson Ridge wildfire has burned 635 acres (255 hectares) based on aerial flyovers, and was zero percent contained on Saturday.

That second fire forced the ordered evacuation of as many as 50 homes, with several residents refusing to evacuate, officials said. (Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney)

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