Western strike teams to help with NM wildfires

8:08 PM, Jun 5, 2013   |    comments
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RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) - Some residents were allowed to return home Wednesday as firefighters shored up lines around one of two wildfires that have raced across thousands of acres of dry forest in northern New Mexico.

The Tres Lagunas blaze has charred more than 14 square miles north of Pecos since being sparked last Thursday by a downed power line. Fire officials said the fire is now 15 percent contained and they're assessing the evacuation area to determine when more evacuees can return.

With fire season in full swing in drought-stricken New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez announced the arrival of three out-of-state strike teams to help if new fires break out.

The teams will be positioned in Rio Rancho, Socorro and Las Vegas.

Martinez spent a few minutes shaking hands with members of the first team to arrive - more than a dozen firefighters from Wyoming. Already dressed in their standard yellow shirts, they told the governor they were ready to go.

"Their mission," Martinez said, "is rapid response to emerging fires with the hope of containing small fires before they become large ones."

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said everyone in the West knows about fires and their impacts on families and businesses.

"My thoughts are with the people of New Mexico," he said in a statement. "Fighting wildfires takes resources from across the country. We are glad we are in a position to lend a hand to New Mexico."

Teams from North Dakota and Oregon will be in New Mexico by Thursday. In all, 38 crew members and 13 engines make up the teams.

The New Mexico State Forestry division also boosted its number of seasonal firefighters this year, adding nearly 50 to the 250 that are hired during a typical season.

Despite the dry conditions, State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said New Mexico has had fewer fires so far this season. Nationally, fewer than 574 square miles have burned. That's less than half the amount burned by this same time last year.

On the opposite side of the Santa Fe National Forest, firefighters assigned to the Thompson Ridge Fire, about 10 miles north of Jemez Springs, were getting help from a DC-10 jumbo jet plane.

The air tanker was dropping slurry Wednesday along the edge of the fire closest to the historic district of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The area includes the ranch headquarters, guest houses, other old cabins and barns.

"There was a lot of excitement overnight and into the wee hours because the fire made a strong run right up to the edge of ranch headquarters," fire information officer Dana Howlett said. "Fortunately, there had been a lot of prep work to protect the structures. We're very happy to report that the whole district is in very good shape."

The fire has charred about 15 square miles after doubling in size Tuesday. It continued its easterly march Wednesday.

Howlett said thunderstorms were expected to increase humidity, which could provide some relief to firefighters.

On the Tres Lagunas Fire, 10 miles north of Pecos, crews were focused on protecting homes and other buildings in Holy Ghost Canyon. They were using sprinklers to boost humidity and to keep the buildings moist.

As of Wednesday, no structures had burned. About 140 homes, mostly summer cabins, were evacuated when the fire started.

Crews were using burnout operations to clear unburned fuel in hopes of slowing the fire. The work was aimed at protecting an area that serves as a water source for the city of Las Vegas.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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