ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A lightning-sparked blaze that jumped its containment lines raced through thick conifer forest in southern New Mexico on Saturday, and fire managers estimated that more than a dozen structures were damaged or destroyed.
Spanning only a few acres on Wednesday, the Little Bear fire began to grow Friday as spot fires formed outside established fire lines due to windy conditions. By Saturday morning, about 10,000 acres had been charred northwest of the mountain community of Ruidoso.
“It’s nerve-racking right now,” Mayor Ray Alborn said in a telephone interview Saturday, as he watched what he described as “real heavy smoke” rise from the Sierra Blanca mountain range.
The mix of timber, dry grass and the steepness of the slopes were making the firefighting efforts more difficult. Windy conditions were also limiting what could be done from the air by helicopters and air tankers, Alborn said.
“Today all we see is smoke,” he said. “Last night, we saw the flames too and it was an awesome expression of power. It was red, red and we could see it going across the top.”
Fire information officers said summer homes in a few subdivisions and several campgrounds were evacuated late Friday. The Rancho Ruidoso area near Alto was added to the list Saturday, and roads throughout the area were closed, said forest spokeswoman Peg Crim.
There was no immediate word on how many people were evacuated in all. Shelters were set up in Ruidoso and Capitan.
Officials said in a morning briefing that an estimated 15 to 20 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the fire. They could not say whether the structures were homes, sheds or other buildings since crews haven’t had a chance to do a formal damage assessment.
The fire was burning in steep, rocky, inaccessible terrain in the White Mountain Wilderness of the Lincoln National Forest, which is home to Smokey Bear, the little black cub that became the nation’s symbol of fire prevention in the 1940s.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., was on his way to the area Saturday to meet with fire managers. He said decades of mismanagement, forests packed full of trees and persistent drought conditions have resulted in an explosive situation.
“We just can’t keep managing our forests this way. It’s not a question of if our forests in the West are going to burn, it’s a matter of when. This is just one more demonstration of that,” he said.
The Little Bear fire has crossed State Highway 48. Fire information officers said Saturday’s goal was to establish an anchor point where crews could work from, fighting the fire with both direct and indirect tactics such as burnout operations.
“We are having winds and the fire is still growing. We’re working on it,” Crim said.
Crews were reporting extreme fire behavior that included flame lengths of about 150 feet and spotting of up to two miles.
Fire information officers said one of the biggest concerns was the weather. Forecasters were calling for more dry, windy weather.
In southwestern New Mexico, firefighters continued securing the massive perimeter of the Whitewater-Baldy fire, the largest fire in the state’s recorded history and the largest currently burning in the nation. The blaze has consumed about 426 square miles and was 32 percent contained Saturday morning.
On Friday, Gov. Susana Martinez visited Reserve for another briefing on the large blaze and declared Catron County a disaster area.
Two smaller fires burning in northern New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest — the Bear Springs and Colorado Peak fires — were nearly contained. However, crews there were also bracing for the red flag conditions that were forecast for Saturday.