ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Smoke, intense heat and rugged terrain were making it difficult Thursday for fire managers in nor thern New Mexico to size up a blaze that was racing across thousands of acres of dead and downed trees deep in the Pecos Wilderness.
Officials had estimated that the Jaroso Fire had ballooned to 12 square miles on Wednesday. However, infrared mapping done overnight put the burned area at nearly 6 square miles.
Even though the lightning-sparked fire has charred fewer square miles, officials on Thursday described the behavior of the flames as unprecedented. Years of buildup within the forests have combined with dangerously dry conditions to make for extreme fire danger across New Mexico and many parts of the West.
“We’ve had several years of drought conditions and we’re seeing overcrowded forests. The conditions are the same here as they are in other forests around the country,” said Dorotea Martinez, a spokeswoman with the Carson National Forest.
The Carson forest — which sits at the edge of Taos, one of New Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations— has closed several trails that access the Pecos Wilderness due to the Jaroso Fire.
The entire Pecos Wilderness has been closed in both the Santa Fe and Carson forests, and Thursday’s closure order includes the Trampas, San Leoandro, Santa Barbara and the Ripley Point trails on the Camino Real Ranger District. Those who violate the order could face stiff fines or prison time.
Martinez said residents throughout the Taos area have been calling forest officials, asking that more of the forest be shut down.
“When people see smoke, they are immediately alarmed by that,” she said. “They want to see more closures because they don’t want to see that kind of devastation, like what’s happening in Colorado right now with the forest and homes.”
Thousands of residents in the Colorado Springs area were ordered to evacuate due to a blaze that has destroyed at least 360 homes.
In southern New Mexico, crews have been protecting the historic mining town of Kingston. About 45 or so residents evacuated earlier this week, and the flames have come within a quarter-mile of the community.
By Thursday, the lightning sparked fire had grown to more than 29 square miles. It’s burning in a rugged area of the Gila National Forest that hasn’t seen fire for a century.
A new lightning-caused fire was reported Thursday morning about 14 miles southwest of Cimarron. The White’s Peak Fire had charred an estimated 850 acres by late afternoon and was burning on state and public land.
Crews battling two other fires in the Santa Fe National Forest have been making progress. The Thompson Ridge Fire on the Valles Caldera National Preserve was 60 percent contained Thursday, and crews working on the Tres Lagunas Fire north of Pecos had contained 80 percent of the blaze.
Firefighters have been dealing with hot, dry and windy weather in recent days. Forecasters with the National Weather Service were predicting more dry thunderstorms on Thursday evening and some rain in the central and southern portions of the state Friday.
On the Carson forest, lightning strikes have been a concern, Martinez said.
“We’re watching very closely. We just want to be real alert,” she said.