ALBUQUERQUE Firefighters were hampered Thursday by warmer weather and rugged terrain in their efforts to contain the states largest wildfire, as the regions top forest official granted an initial request for funding that clears the way for recovery work on part of the massive blaze.
Teams were using aerial reconnaissance flights and satellite images to create a map showing the severity of the burn throughout the southern half of the Las Conchas Fire. Meanwhile, hydrologists and soil scientists were trying to estimate how much sediment might be moved if rain hits the burn scar.
We have some areas, of course, that it burned a lot worse than others. That one area where we had 40,000 acres go within a day is obviously a critical area, especially since there were homes that were lost in that area, too, said Bruce Hill, a spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest.
The Las Conchas Fire has charred more than 233 square miles, or nearly 150,000 acres, since being sparked June 26 by a tree falling on a power line. More than five dozen homes were destroyed early on as the fire raced through the Cochiti Mesa and Peralta Canyon areas.
The blaze was 57 percent contained Thursday, but fire officials said crews were having a difficult time because many of the areas actively burning within the perimeter were on steep, broken ground.
Firefighters were forced to conduct burnouts and mop up as the flames reached gentler slopes.
The increased fire activity was expected to last through the weekend because warmer temperatures, less humidity and gusty winds were predicted.
The burned area covers massive portions of the Jemez Mountains. In some places, whole mountainsides have been replaced by blackened sticks that once were towering ponderosa trees.
Teams have been working on flood-mitigation efforts and preparing recovery plans, but environmentalists and some property owners have voiced concern about the vulnerability of the charred soil.
Members of WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and other groups sent a letter to Santa Fe forest supervisor Maria Garcia this week, urging that she consider issuing an indefinite emergency closure order to motorized recreational vehicles and cross country travel within the fires perimeter.
The groups also want the forest to issue a final decision on its travel-management plan as soon as possible given the resources that will be directed toward recovery of the burned area in the coming months.
We are concerned that the fire area must be treated with the utmost care in the period immediately following, the groups said. In particular watersheds are highly vulnerable post-fire as are wildlife populations. Unmaintained roads and trails can exacerbate the problems, especially if they are used under the current conditions.