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Friday July 31st, 2015 9:23AM

Record-setting NM fire grows to 339 square miles

By The Associated Press
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RESERVE, N.M. - A wildfire burning in what New Mexico's governor called "impossible" terrain in an isolated, mountainous area of the state continued its rapid growth Friday as forecasters called for thunderstorms and dry lightning that could spark even more fires.

The massive blaze in the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico is the biggest in state history and the largest currently burning in the country. It scorched an additional 39 square miles in the past day, growing to nearly 340 square miles, as more than 1,200 firefighters worked to halt its spread.

Firefighters conducted more burnout operations in an effort to corral the erratic blaze that has injured six people, the fire's incident management team said Friday. None of the injuries was serious.

The fire was about 10 percent contained. Fire information officer Gerry Perry said most of the resources were being focused on the northern and western ends of the fire.

"The wind situation looks a whole lot better, but we're still expecting that we're going to be busy," he said.

Though crews were helped overnight with increased humidity levels, forecasters said there was a chance for thunderstorms and dry lightning over the Black Range that could spark more fires. Extended forecasts also called for more hot, dry weather.

Gov. Susana Martinez viewed the fire from a New Mexico National Guard helicopter Thursday and saw the thick smoke shrouding some of the steep canyons that are inaccessible to firefighters. She described the terrain as "impossible," saying there was no way for firefighters to directly attack the flames in the rugged areas of wilderness.

"It's going to keep going up," she said of the acreage burned. "Be prepared for that."

Along the fire's northern edge, Martinez spotted crews doing burnout operations designed to slow the erratic blaze, which has surpassed last year's Las Conchas fire as the largest ever in recorded state history. That fire charred 156,593 acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.

From the air, Martinez could see the blanket of smoke stretching for miles. She used words like "daunting" and "enormous," fitting since fire managers said the blaze could smolder until the region gets significant rainfall during the summer monsoon season.

So far, the fire has destroyed a dozen cabins and eight outbuildings.

Perry said the fire is close to the community of Mogollon, but the threat is not imminent since firefighters have been working to protect the structures there by clearing debris and applying special fire-resistant wraps.

It's too early for the ecologists, soil scientists and hydrologists to get on the ground to start assessing the damage, but members of the incident management team have estimated that a majority of the fire has left behind moderate and minimal fire scars.

Officials closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on Thursday due to smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure will remain in effect until conditions improve.

The wildfire near the Arizona border is fueling experts' predictions that this is a preview of things to come across the West as several states contend with a dangerous mix of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.
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