New Mexico fire forces evacuations, threatens tourism

PECOS, N.M. - Firefighters worked Wednesday to turn the front edge of a 23,500-acre fire north toward the Pecos Wilderness and away from the main watershed for Las Vegas, N.M.

It's an ambitious plan, ''but I think it's do-able,'' Van Bateman, incident commander for the fire, told a news conference Wednesday.

Ground crews with bulldozers cut fire lines to protect the Gallinas Canyon watershed a mile away, while air tankers carrying fire retardant and helicopters carrying buckets of water hit the fire from above.

Wednesday evening, fire spokeswoman Maria Garcia said flames had reached the canyon.

''The far north end of the fire has reached what is essentially considered the upper portion of the Gallinas watershed,'' she said. ''However, water quality has not been affected.''

Garcia said trees, roots and other vegetation further down the canyon act as a natural filtering system for the watershed and can still remove ash.

There was also a growing possibility that more moisture might aid firefighters over the next few days, National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Ford said.

The columns of smoke that roiled skyward Tuesday were gone Wednesday as thick smoke hovered over the burned and burning area, blanketing Interstate 25 in spots. The air was hazy and smelled of smoke in Las Vegas, a city of about 15,000 east of Santa Fe. The city is about 12 miles from the blaze and out of its path, officials said.

Elsewhere in the West, wildfires have scorched parts of Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah. Hot, dry weather has left huge sections of the region vulnerable, and the heat was expected to continue.

A wildfire set by lightning May 24 had burned through 9,500 dry acres of Kaibab National Forest in Arizona. Firefighters had the blaze about 40 percent contained Wednesday.

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