A plume of smoke is seen rising from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M. on May 22.
Photo credit: AP Photo/David Thornburg
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Firefighters were being forced to sit on the sidelines Thursday as a massive wildfire that destroyed a dozen homes and several other structures in a small summer community in southwestern New Mexico grew larger and put more structures at risk.
Tripling in size over the last day, the lightning-sparked Whitewater and Baldy fires merged to burn across more than 110 square miles of the Gila National Forest by Thursday.
Crews have been unable to attack the flames directly because of fierce winds and erratic fire behavior, said fire information officer Iris Estes.
"At this point it's just a monitoring situation to see whether they can find some place where they can build lines or do something to slow it down," she said.
The wind-whipped fire burned through the Willow Creek subdivision on Wednesday afternoon. Officials confirmed 12 homes along with seven small outbuildings were destroyed, and the damage assessment continued Thursday.
Fire managers said employees with the State Forestry Division and the U.S. Forest Service would be contacting property owners.
Seven Willow Creek residents evacuated earlier this week, and the community of Mogollon was under voluntary evacuation. Authorities said many structures were still at risk.
The northwestern flank of the fire was about 5 miles from Mogollon. Estes said the flames were headed in a northeasterly direction.
Firefighters were anticipating winds of up to 35 mph late Thursday afternoon.
The flames have raced across more than 70,500 acres of steep, rugged terrain in the Gila National Forest. The Baldy fire was first spotted May 9 and the Whitewater blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days thanks to relentless winds.
There is no containment.
The blaze is about half the size of last summer's historic Las Conchas fire, the largest in the state's recorded history. That blaze burned 156,593 acres and destroyed dozens of homes in northern New Mexico's Jemez Mountains.
With drought conditions persisting, New Mexico forestry officials have been urging residents to take precautions to help avoid another record fire season.
Many trails in the Gila region were off-limits due to the Whitewater-Baldy fire and more could be closed as the blaze continues to burn.
About 10 miles to the southeast, volunteers and staff at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument have been watching the column of smoke develop each afternoon.
"The plume above us yesterday was truly awesome. It was scary awesome," said volunteer Dave Young.
The monument was not in any immediate danger, but Young described conditions in the area as "bone dry."
"We're talking single-digit humidity in the afternoon. We've been down to 1 percent, and you can't get below 1 percent," he said.
Aside from low humidity and high temperatures, Estes said crews were expecting the red flag conditions to last through Saturday.
More than 400 personnel were assigned to the fire.
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