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New Mexico's record-size wildfire could be preview of vicious fires to come

(CBS/AP) ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Experts say a massive wildfire that has become the largest blaze in New Mexico history may just be a preview of what's to come after months of drought.

The fire in the Gila National Forest formed last week when two lightning-sparked blazes merged. About 1,200 firefighters are battling the growing blaze, but that they are facing low humidity and shifting winds.

The wildfire has burned more than 265 square miles, surpassing last year's Los Conchase fire.

Jeremy Sullens of the National Interagency Fire Center said La Nina is main reason the U.S. Southwest has experienced months of drought and saw a relatively mild winter. He says the grass that would have fallen because of snow remains high, sparking more dangerous fire conditions.

He added July's monsoon season will probably help in alleviating some fires, but it's unclear how much.

Fire information officer Jerry Perry said about 1,200 firefighters from around the state were battling the growing blaze, but that they continue to face low humidity and shifting winds in their efforts.

"We 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 blaze 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 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.

The National Weather Service said winds will likely blow smoke into Las Cruces on Wednesday and Thursday.

Officials said communities surrounding the fire area could expect smoke to linger into Thursday morning. Cold air after sundown will push warm air to the surface, trapping smoke closer to the ground.

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