New Mexico wildfire reaches 339 square miles

This image provided by the U.S. Forest Service shows hotshots during burnout operations at the Gila National Forest, May 30, 2012.
AP/U.S. Forest Service

Updated 12:00 p.m. EST

(CBS/AP) RESERVE, N.M. - A massive wildfire in the New Mexico wilderness that already is the largest in state history spread in all directions Thursday, and experts say it's likely a preview of things to come as states across the West contend with a dangerous recipe of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.

The erratic Gila National Forest blaze grew overnight to more than 217,000 acres, or nearly 339 square miles, as it raced across the area's steep, ponderosa pine-covered hills and through its rugged canyons.

The incident management team says more than 1,200 firefighters are battling the fire that so far has injured six people. Officials say the fire is around 10 percent contained.

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The 2-week-old Gila forest fire is the largest wildfire burning in the country. It has burned an additional 39 square miles in the past day in an isolated mountainous area of southwestern New Mexico.

Gov. Susana Martinez viewed the fire from a New Mexico National Guard helicopter Thursday afternoon and saw the thick smoke among some of the steep canyons that are inaccessible to firefighters.

Along the fire's northern edge, Martinez spotted crews doing burnout operations designed to slow the erratic blaze, which has surpassed the Los Conchas fire as the state's largest ever. That fire charred 156,593 acres last year and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.

From the air, Martinez pointed to the terrain as being "impossible" in some areas.

"It's going to keep going up. Be prepared for that," she told reporters earlier in the day.

The fire has has destroyed a dozen cabins and eight outbuildings, fire information officer Iris Estes said.

Experts say persistent drought, climate change and shifts in land use and firefighting strategies mean other western states likely will see similar giant fires this season. Forecasters say there's chance for thunderstorms and dry lightning over the Black Hills area that could spark more fires.

"We've been in a long drought cycle for the last 20 years, and conditions now are great for these type of fires," said Steve Pyne, author of "Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires" and a life science professor at Arizona State University. "Everything is in line."

Agencies in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona are bracing for the worst. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email notification systems to warn of wildfires, and most states have enlisted crews from other jurisdictions to be ready when the big ones come.

"It's highly likely that these fires are going to get so big that states are going to need outside resources to fight them," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center.

According to the National Weather Service, a dry climate is expected to prolong drought conditions across the Great Basin and central Rockies during the fire season. Large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will remain under severe drought conditions.

"We're transitioning from La Nina to El Nino, so we have no guidance to what's going to happen, like if we will get more rain or less rain," said Ed Polasko, a weather service meteorologist.

It's unclear what type of relief will come from the monsoon, which starts in mid-July, since experts say it's difficult to predict what areas in the West will benefit from the storms, Sullens said.

A lack of moisture means fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere could pose a problem since states received no sustained snow or rain this winter and spring.

That's what happened in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.

Typically, fires in the area don't cross the middle fork of the Gila River, said Danny Montoya, a member of the fire's incident command team.

"This year, it did get across," Montoya said. "We're getting humidity levels during the day about 2 to 3 percent. Normally, during summer you'd see 5 to 12 percent."

Officials closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on Thursday due to smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure would remain in effect until conditions improve.

Montoya said he wouldn't be surprised if smoke from the fire remained until the monsoon since the fire is burning in rough areas and it's difficult for crews to fight it head-on.

"We're continuing with burnout operations and we've been helped with a slight rise in humidity and decreased winds," she said.

Another reason states in the West will see more massive fires this season is because, coupled with drought and dry climate, crews have experienced changes in firefighting strategies and agencies have changed some policies in fighting wildfires in isolated areas, Pyne said.

"In the last 20 years or so, agencies have generally been reluctant to put firefighters at risk in remote areas," Pyne said. "It wasn't like that decades ago."

Instead, he said agencies have focused attention on burnout operations until conditions are safe to begin containment.

Not that those practices and the large fires are bad things, Pyne said. For example, he said the Gila Wilderness has been a target for controlled burns.

"So maybe," Pyne said, "this is how it's supposed to happen."