Rain falls on northern N.M. area blackened by 25,000-acre blaze

PECOS, N.M. - Firefighters battling a blaze that has charred 25,000 acres in northern New Mexico got some unexpected help Thursday as rain fell in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the fire broke out.

''At first we thought we were going to get dry lightning, but it's real rain,'' said Maria Garcia, a fire information officer.

''Obviously, temperatures dropped, the humidity's up, you can really feel the moisture in the air,'' Garcia said. ''Winds have pretty much died down. ... We'll need to be cautious with the potential for lightning but with the moisture maybe it'll all even out.''

Before the rains came, the ferocious wildfire had already slowed its march northward toward the vast Pecos Wilderness and Gallinas Canyon, the main watershed for Las Vegas, N.M.

Meanwhile, dry, hot weather complicated firefighting in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah. Record heat, high winds and low humidity fanned the flames in all four states. Arizona forest officials said a 10,200-acre burn northeast of Williams was 50 percent contained Thursday morning. Firefighters spent much of Wednesday strengthening fire breaks on the west, north and northeast flanks of the blaze by setting back fires to burn out underbrush and rob the larger fire of fuel.

New Mexico's Viveash Fire has surged through dry timber in the Sangre de Cristos, burning 25,094 acres on Santa Fe National Forest and private land and forcing hundreds to flee.

The area is checkered with small ranches, clumps of dwellings and several camps. On Tuesday, campers and residents were ordered out of Gallinas, El Porvenir and Cow Creek canyons and the upper reaches of Pecos River Canyon.

The blaze has burned a barn near Cow Creek Campground and three outbuildings on the Martin Ranch in the upper end of Cow Creek, officials said Thursday. They said structures in Cow Creek, Bull Creek, Manzanares and Gallinas canyons and the Gallinas watershed are still considered threatened.

Some property owners were pushing Thursday to be allowed back in.

Larissa Lewis, who was evacuated Monday from the 160 acres she owns around Elk Mountain, hoped to be able to view her property, where she is developing a ranch. She was upset that authorities have not told her anything about how the land fared although firefighters have been in the area.

''It's the only road to the Elk Mountain, so I know they've driven through there millions of times,'' said Lewis, who lives on another ranch near Pecos. ''There's no other way.''

Fire crews concentrated on keeping the fire from roaring down Gallinas Canyon and secured the southern portion near Pecos River Canyon. Fire officials said those points have to be secured before crews go to work on the flanks.

The upper portion of Gallinas Canyon was burning Thursday morning, but it was not considered significant and firefighters had a line around the blaze, said Charles Jankiewicz, a Santa Fe National Forest spokesman.

Firefighters also have been trying to turn the blaze northward toward the wilderness to lessen the threat to the watershed as well as property and structures in the area.

But at the same time, fire crews don't want the fire spreading into the wilderness, where a lack of roads and a ban on mechanized vehicles would make fighting the blaze more difficult.

Air tankers have been dropping fire retardant on the flames and helicopters have been dumping huge buckets of water since the fire broke out Monday. More than 1,000 firefighters and support staff were on the scene.

The fire, pegged at more than 6,500 acres Tuesday, grew rapidly and had scorched 25,094 acres by Thursday morning.

There was no estimate of when it might be fully contained. The blaze was 15 percent contained Thursday.

Authorities said the fire was human-caused, but that they were continuing their investigation.


On the Net: National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov

Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us


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