ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — From the air, the smoke from a massive wildfire stretches as far as the eye can see, spreading across the rugged country in southwestern New Mexico where the nation's wilderness movement was born nearly a century ago.
On the ground, firefighters talk about the steep canyons that keep them from directly attacking what has become the largest blaze in New Mexico's recorded history and the largest currently burning in the country.
Things might look bad. But to land managers and scientists, the record-setting blaze represents a true test of decades of work aimed at returning fire to its natural role on the landscape — a test that comes as many Western states grapple with overgrown forests, worsening drought and a growing prospect for more megafires.
The Whitewater-Baldy fire has destroyed a dozen cabins while marching across more than 356 square miles of the Gila National Forest. A pair of lightning-sparked fires grew together to form the massive blaze.
Unlike last year's megafires in New Mexico and Arizona, this blaze is burning in territory that has been frequently blackened under the watchful eye of the Gila's fire managers.
Starting in the early 1970s, the Gila has been leading the way when it comes to implementing such an active fire management strategy. Instead of immediately dousing flames in the wilderness, forest managers have let them burn as long as conditions are favorable.
The question that the Whitewater-Baldy fire is expected to answer is whether that strategy will pay off with more natural, less intense fires.
"There's a great opportunity here to study a fire like this," said Matthew Rollins, the wildland fire science coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Center in Virginia.
"The opportunity exists to look at how this fire has behaved differently in terms of vegetation mortality, effects on wildlife and fish habitat and water quality," Rollins said. "We can study how it burned in the wilderness relative to areas with other types of fire management strategies and other types of ignition patterns."
So far, the word from the fire lines is that the majority of the 228,000-acre blaze has burned with low to moderate intensity, not the kind of near-nuclear strength that was exhibited last year with the Las Conchas blaze in northern New Mexico. In that case, entire mountainsides were vaporized, leaving nothing behind but the white ashy skeletons of what used to be trees.
And as for those unburned pockets within the fire's boundaries, Rollins said he believes many of those spots have experienced low-intensity fire numerous times over the last century to make them more resilient.
Previously burned areas have also helped slow the flames on the fire's eastern flank.
"The fact that this is wilderness and the wilderness of the Gila has seen a lot of fires, we are comfortable with allowing it to burn. What we do is monitor it and help steer it around to keep some of the impacts lower than they would otherwise be on their own," said Danny Montoya, an operations section chief with the Southwest Incident Management Team.
Montoya said the rugged terrain has forced firefighters to attack the flames indirectly by starving the fire of fuels along its perimeter.
The smoke also has prevented direct attack from the air. Several helicopters and small planes are helping ground crews with backburn operations.
While a burn severity map has yet to be released, members of the incident management team are estimating that only 20 percent of the fire has burned at high intensity.
Last week, the fire made a 60,000-acre run in one day, scorching mixed conifer at high elevations as the flames were pushed by gusts of up to 60 mph.
That kind of fire can be devastating, experts said.
With fire behavior ranging from active to extreme, it will be some time before the scientists can get on the ground to see how the Gila has fared. Until then, they are working on gathering the decades of research done on the Gila, which is home to the world's first designated wilderness. It was the father of the wilderness movement, forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold, who pushed for the formation of the Gila Wilderness in 1924.
Tree ring data that dates back to the 1500s tells of the forest's fire history and the age of its trees. The perimeters of the Gila's fires along with information about their severity and vegetation mortality for the last century have also been compiled by the U.S. Forest Service.
There's also more ecological data from the federal Joint Fire Science program that can be used for comparisons.
"I think it's going to be a success story for the use of fire for managing forests," Rollins said. "It might not look like it on TV right now, but we haven't had any fatalities or dramatic housing loss like we see in Southern California or it burning so dramatically close to communities like last year's Las Conchas fire."
Experts agree that the Gila will see changes regardless of the severity of the fire. In the worst spots, aspens and other shrubs are expected to take over.
"When we're punching multi-thousand-acre holes in areas of ponderosa pine and drier mixed conifer types with no seed sources surviving, it's very difficult for those conifers to be re-established," said Craig Allen, a USGS ecologist based at Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico.
Fire managers are also expecting flooding. As the Las Conchas fire showed, steep denuded areas resulted in walls of water washing down canyons during the rainy season.
Residents in Glenwood are already worried about the prospect of flooding, and federal wildlife managers are concerned about what sediment and ash in the waterways could mean for the native Gila trout.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also monitoring two packs of endangered Mexican gray wolves that are situated to the north and east of the fire. Last year, wolves in Arizona were able to escape the massive Wallow fire with their pups, but it's unclear how mobile the packs in New Mexico are since their pups are much younger.
The fire is about 17 percent contained, which much of that being on the fire's northern and northwestern flanks.
On Saturday, the more than 1,200 firefighters who are battling the fire continued to build lines to corral the flames before more threatening winds and dry conditions developed.
"We're going to continue fighting this fire aggressively without putting our firefighters in danger," fire information officer Lee Bentley said. "We're getting as much of a black line as we can around this fire."
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM
In this Tuesday, May 29, 2012 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, a firefighter walks along a burn out line as part of an effort to contain the nation's largest wildfire in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze that has charred 340 square miles, or 218,000 acres, of terrain in the rugged mountains and canyons of southwestern New Mexico. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Mark Pater)
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)
This May 29, 2012 photo provided by the US Forest Service Gila National Forest shows the massive blaze in the Gila National Forest, seen from Neighbors Mountain directly east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire officials said Wednesday May 30, 2012 the wildfire has burned more than 265 square miles has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/US Forest Service)
This image provided by NASA shows smoke from New Mexico wildfires drifting across the southcentral United States. The image was acquired Thursday May 24, 2012 by NASA's MODIS satellite Aqua. Firefighters are battling a massive wildfire in southwestern New Mexico that has destroyed a dozen cabins and spread smoke across the state, prompting holiday weekend air-quality warnings. The fire burned early Saturday through remote and rugged terrain around the Gila Wilderness and has grown to 85,000 acres or more than 130 square miles. Fire officials say nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds. (AP Photo/NASA)
In this May 22, 2012 file photo provided by David Thornburg, a plume of smoke rises from the Whitewater fire burning in the Gila Wilderness east of Glenwood, N.M. Fire officials confirmed Wednesday, May 30, 2012, that the massive wildfire, which has burned more than 265 square miles in the Gila National Forest, has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/David Thornburg, File)
This photo provided by InciWeb Incident Information System shows the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in Mogollon, N.M., a privately owned ghost town which was ordered to evacuate. Fire officials in New Mexico said Saturday, May 26, 2012, that the blaze has shrunk slightly to 82,000 acres but is still 0 percent contained because of weather conditions. (AP Photo/InciWeb Incident Information System)
Firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Ariz., cut a fire line along a mountain ridge outside Mogollon, N.M., on Saturday, June 2, 2012. The crew is part of an effort to manage and contain the Whitewater-Baldy fire which has burned more than 354 square miles of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service, Tara Ross)