Humidity Slows New Mexico Fire

CAPITAN, N.M. (AP) -- Higher humidity and lower temperatures helped slow the 44,500-acre Peppin Fire which has been burning for nearly three weeks in the Capitan Mountains.

The fire was 45 percent contained as of Friday morning. The blaze has burned a dozen cabins and several outbuildings since it was sparked by lightning May 15.

It has cost an estimated $4.3 million to fight so far.

About a quarter of an inch of rain fell on the center of the fire overnight, while the northeast side got 0.13 inch, fire officials said.

Humidity on Thursday helped to keep the fire from flaring up, but hampered other firefighting strategies.

``We weren't able to get out and do as much burning as we wanted to do,'' fire information officer Joe Luttman said. Firefighters had hoped to burn out some areas before the main fire reaches them, robbing it of fuel to burn. But debris such as pine needles and small sticks absorb the humidity quickly, making it difficult to make the small fires burn, Luttman said.

About 570 personnel were assigned to the fire Thursday night, along with five helicopters, 16 engines and three dozers.

Luttman said the chance of thunderstorms was increasing heading into the weekend. Luttman said that could hinder burnout operations while helping dampen the main fire.

The Forest Service reported Thursday that the blaze was no longer spreading along its eastern and northeastern flanks. But the agency said officials are still concerned about the heavy timber growth, steep terrain, poor accessibility and possibility of more wind.

The fire is not threatening structures.

Crews already are working on rehabilitation efforts in the burned area east of Capitan Gap, seeding grass along bulldozer and hand-cut fire lines, cutting down hazardous trees and replacing damaged road and trail signs.

The Lincoln National Forest where the fire is burning implemented smoking and campfire restrictions Tuesday on parts of the forest.

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico and Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos went to a higher level of fire restrictions Friday.

All campfires, charcoal or wood stoves are banned, including in developed campgrounds. Smoking in the forest is banned except in enclosed vehicles and buildings.

Bandelier also allows smoking by people stopped within a 5-foot area clear of all debris. Smoking is banned on all trails and in the backcountry.

The Santa Fe forest is in extreme fire danger, said supervisor Gilbert Zepeda.

``As a public safety measure, we feel it is necessary to move into the next level of fire restrictions,'' Zepeda said.

The forest's restrictions also ban the use of chain saws or other equipment powered by internal combustion engines. Welding, operating a torch or driving vehicles off roads is prohibited.

The Pecos, San Pedro Parks and Chama River Canyon wilderness areas are exempt from the restrictions. Campfires are allowed in designated wilderness areas.

``We ask wilderness campers to take extra precautions with their campfire and not leave the area until their campfire is cold to the touch,'' Zepeda said.

Fire management officer Paul Orozco said officials are looking ahead at the possibility of having to close portions of the forest.

Bandelier National Monument allows petroleum-heated stoves, lanterns and cooking devices in designated campgrounds.