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New Mexico Wildfire 2012: Gila Forest Fire May Become Largest Blaze In State History

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NEW MEXICO WILDFIRE 2012
This Tuesday, May 22, 2012, photo, provided by David Thornburg shows a plume of smoke rising from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire managers said the blaze had charred more than 10,000 acres before merging Wednesday afternoon with the nearby 11,500-acre Baldy fire. Both fires were sparked by lightning. (AP Photo/David Thornburg) | AP

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two lightning-sparked blazes that merged in a mountainous southwestern New Mexico forest are close to becoming the largest wildfire in state history, fire officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. Forest Service said the erratic blaze in Gila National Forest had grown to about 152,000 acres by Tuesday — just 5,000 acres from breaking the state record. It is about 15 miles east of Glenwood, N.M., a small town with a few hundred residents.

More than 1,100 firefighters and nine helicopters from around the state were fighting the blaze. But officials said extremely low humidity will keep making efforts against the fire difficult.

The two lightning-sparked fires merged last week to form the giant blaze, which has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings. One fire was first spotted May 9 and the second blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds. Officials also said a "record breaking dry air mass" and persistent drought in the region contributed to the fire's growth.

Those winds forced crews to the sidelines last week as the fire rapidly spread in an isolated area and charred several homes in the community of Willow Creek, which remains under evacuation. Smoke has spread across New Mexico and parts of Arizona, putting cities as far away as Albuquerque under health alerts.

Officials said areas around some of New Mexico's largest cities, including Albuquerque and as far southeast as Roswell, will see smoke by late Tuesday.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman announced Tuesday that FEMA has approved New Mexico's request for fire management assistance declaration for the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex burning in Catron and Grant Counties. Bingaman visited Reserve, N.M., Tuesday and was briefed by the U.S. Forest Service on the fire.

Under the declaration, the state is eligible for funding through the Fire Management Assistance Grant Program, which provides for the "mitigation, management, and control" of fires burning on publicly or privately owned forest or grasslands.

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Susana Martinez urged business affected by the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire to apply for low-interest Small Business Administration loans that could become available if enough applicants seek the help.

"As a result of this fire, small businesses are unquestionably feeling the impact, and I want to make sure that these businesses and their surrounding communities can take advantage of any assistance possible," Martinez said in a statement.

A fire last year that burned about 244 square miles was the state's largest. That blaze threatened property around Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.

Dry and hot conditions in the Southwest have also fueled wildfires in other states, including Colorado. Hundreds of firefighters were at an 8-square-mile fire in western Colorado near that state's border with Utah, and a separate 4-square-mile blaze about 200 miles southwest of Denver.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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