SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A wildfire burning in the steep and narrow canyons of the Pecos Wilderness north of Santa Fe ballooned to more than 12 square miles on Wednesday.
Fire managers said it’s still too dangerous to put any firefighters on the ground. The only option for battling the Jaroso Fire has been a fleet of water-dropping helicopters.
The other problem is the area has an immense amount of fuel that has built up over the years. Duane Archuleta, the fire management officer for the Santa Fe National Forest, said the fire is now burning through an area where dead trees are stacked up to five feet high.
There are also pockets of bug-killed timber that are dry and ready to ignite.
“This fuel type, when it’s ready to burn, it’s going to burn and there’s not a whole lot people can do about it,” Archuleta said.
Archuleta expected the fire to make more “hard runs” on Wednesday. That comes after the lightning-sparked blaze more than quadrupled in size on Tuesday, growing from 360 acres to more than 9 square miles and sending up an enormous plume of smoke.
That afternoon plume is what worries fire managers. The concern was that if it collapses, it could violently push the fire down and out in any direction. Similar fire behavior helped the record-breaking Las Conchas fire grow in 2011.
There are some small communities about 10 miles to the northwest of the fire. Crews were planning on building fire lines and clearing out fuel in key areas miles ahead of the blaze in hopes of protecting the communities if the fire heads that way.
Fire managers have had a hard time estimating the size of the blaze due to the intense flame activity and the smoke. They said a spotter plane reported seeing a ribbon of fire that stretched more than two miles with flames about 300 feet above the tree tops.
The Jaroso Fire is just one of the wildfires keeping crews busy in northern New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest. The Thompson Ridge Fire on the Valles Caldera National Preserve has charred nearly 36 square miles and the Tres Lagunas Fire has blackened about 16 square miles north of Pecos. Firefighters have been able to contain significant portions of those fires since they were sparked at the end of May by downed power lines.
In southern New Mexico, firefighters were trying to keep the Silver Fire from reaching an old mining town whose 45 or so residents have been evacuated. The fire was sending a blanket of smoke into the Mimbres Valley on Wednesday evening as the winds shifted.
Fire managers estimated that the blaze has burned about 26 square miles. An infrared flight was planned to get a more accurate figure.
The fire is still about a quarter-mile from Kingston, and crews continued their work to protect the community, fire information officer Rob Deyerberg said.
The lightning-caused fire started last Friday. It’s burning in extremely rugged mountainous area of dense forest where there hadn’t been a fire for 100 years.