Strike teams deploy to NM to help with wildfires

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By Susan M. Bryan

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) — Some residents were allowed to return home Wednesday as firefighters shored up lines around one of two wildfires that have raced across thousands of acres of dry forest in northern New Mexico.

The Tres Lagunas blaze has charred more than 14 square miles north of Pecos since being sparked last Thursday by a downed power line. Fire officials said the fire is now 15 percent contained and they're assessing the evacuation area to determine when more evacuees can return.

With fire season in full swing in drought-stricken New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez planned to announce the arrival of three out-of-state strike teams to help if new fires break out.

The teams will be positioned in Rio Rancho, Socorro and Las Vegas.

"They will be available to go anywhere," said Dan Ware, spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry division. "Because we have a lot of resources dedicated to the two fires, having these strike teams will really be a benefit."

A crew from Wyoming is arriving Wednesday, while teams from North Dakota and Oregon will be in New Mexico by Thursday. In all, 38 crew members and 13 engines make up the teams.

Ware said State Forestry also boosted the number of its seasonal firefighters this year, adding nearly 50 to the 250 that are hired during a typical season.

Despite the dry conditions, Ware said New Mexico has had fewer fires so far this season. Nationally, fewer than 574 square miles have burned. That's less than half the amount burned by this same time last year.

On the opposite side of the Santa Fe National Forest, firefighters assigned to the Thompson Ridge Fire north of Jemez Springs were getting help from a DC-10 jumbo jet plane.

The air tanker was dropping slurry Wednesday along the edge of the fire closest to the historic district of the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The area includes the ranch headquarters, guest houses, other old cabins and barns.

"There was a lot of excitement overnight and into the wee hours because the fire made a strong run right up to the edge of ranch headquarters," fire information officer Dana Howlett said. "Fortunately, there had been a lot of prep work to protect the structures. We're very happy to report that the whole district is in very good shape."

The fire has charred about 15 square miles after doubling in size Tuesday. It continued its easterly march Wednesday.

Howlett said afternoon thunderstorms were expected to increase humidity, which could provide some relief to firefighters.

On the Tres Lagunas Fire near Pecos, crews were focused on protecting homes and other buildings in Holy Ghost Canyon. They were using sprinklers to boost humidity and to keep the buildings moist.

As of Wednesday, no structures had burned. About 140 homes, mostly summer cabins, were evacuated when the fire started.

Crews were using burnout operations to clear unburned fuel in hopes of slowing the fire. The work was aimed at protecting an area that serves as a water source for the city of Las Vegas.