New Mexico Governor Calls For Tankers Return

CAPITAN, N.M. (AP) -- As a wildfire exploded in size in rural south-central New Mexico, the governor blasted the federal government for not allowing heavy air tankers to battle the flames.

After the blaze in Lincoln National Forest grew to more than 23,000 acres, Gov. Bill Richardson renewed his call for the Bush administration to allow the tankers to be used to drop fire retardant. The planes were grounded because of safety concerns after two broke up in flight during the 2002 fire season.

More than 300 firefighters spent Tuesday building fire lines around the forest fire in the Capitan Mountains. A dozen cabins and several outbuildings - mostly summer homes - have been destroyed.

``I was shocked to be told this fire could have been held to a single acre if the heavy air tankers had been available at the beginning,'' Richardson said. ``The administration has pulled the safety net out from under states and local communities threatened by wildfire.''

Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said agency officials have assured him that additional equipment will be available for the fire, including military C-130 air tankers.

``The Forest Service is imminently aware of the very dangerous situation existing in Lincoln County,'' the senator said. ``I have stressed to them the dire need for the slurry tankers to fight these fires.''

However, officials with the regional Forest Service office and the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque said they were unaware of the Forest Service preparing C-130s for work in New Mexico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised its help Tuesday, saying the agency would cover up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting the wildfire. Richardson had declared a state of emergency Monday.

``It's a wind driven fire in very rough, dry terrain,'' fire information officer Beth Wilson said Tuesday. ``It's cool, the humidity is up and we had some cloud cover all day.''

A second blaze in New Mexico burned 5,100 acres in the Gallinas Mountains, some 50 miles northwest. The fire, spread from a small abandoned campfire, was expected to be contained by Thursday evening, officials said.