ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: A massive wildfire that has burned more than 265 square miles in the Gila National Forest has become the largest fire in New Mexico history, fire officials confirmed Wednesday.
The erratic blaze grew overnight to more than 170,000 acres, surpassing a fire last year that burned 156,593 acres in Los Conchas and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s premier nuclear facility.
Experts say the mammoth fire may be just a preview of what’s to come in part of the Western United States after months of drought and dry conditions.
The Gila forest fire also is the largest burning in the country.
It formed last week when two lightning-sparked blazes merged in an isolated mountainous area in southwestern New Mexico, where it has destroyed about a dozen homes and prompted evacuations of nearby towns and health alerts for some of the state’s largest cities.
Fire information officer Jerry Perry said about 1,200 firefighters from around the state were battling the growing blaze, but they continue to face low humidity and shifting winds in their efforts.
“We are still facing adverse weather conditions that are posing a challenge,” Perry said. “We’re doing a lot of burnout operations and yesterday we had to deal with a lot of spot fires.”
The fire has not been contained, and officials worry that shifting winds and dryness related to the state’s record drought may cause the fire to grow even more.
The fire so far has threatened few communities and was burning away from many of New Mexico’s largest towns and cities.
But state officials issued air quality alerts for cities as far away as Albuquerque, nearly 170 miles away, and Santa Fe last weekend, and Perry said parts of southern New Mexico could expect to see smoke from the fire.
Officials said communities surrounding the fire area could expect smoke to linger today.