ALBUQUERQUE Wildfires cast a pall over Memorial Day weekend in parts of the West on Friday as smoke from a massive New Mexico blaze prompted air-quality warnings.
The privately owned ghost town of Mogollon was placed under a voluntary evacuation order as firefighters worked to tame the wildfire in the southwestern New Mexico wilderness, which has grown to 70,000 acres or nearly 110 square miles.
Two lightning-sparked fires merged Wednesday to form the giant Gila Wilderness blaze, which has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings. The Baldy fire was first spotted May 9 and the Whitewater blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days because of relentless winds.
The strong winds pushed ash from the blaze 35 to 40 miles away, while smoke from the giant fire spread across the state and into Arizona. The haze blocked views of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, and a smell of smoke permeated the air throughout northern New Mexico.
Health officials in Albuquerque and Santa Fe issued alerts for the holiday weekend, advising people to limit outdoor activities, keep windows closed and avoid swamp coolers.
They said the effects on most people would be minor but noted mild throat and eye irritation or allergy-like symptoms could be expected. Officials warned people with heart and lung conditions to be especially diligent in minimizing their exposure to the smoky air.
In Arizona, residents of the historic mining town of Crown King were allowed to return home after being evacuated because of a wildfire about 85 miles north of Phoenix. The fire started May 13 and has burned more than 16,000 acres. It is 35 percent contained, fire officials said.
The massive New Mexico blaze was being battled by more than 500 firefighters, but winds and erratic flames forced them to sit on the sidelines Thursday.
We put into place a strategy to corral the slow-moving fire at ridge tops and natural rock cliffs soon after the Incident Commander John Pierson reported firefighters experiencing extremely hazardous conditions, Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell said.
The risk presented to firefighters outweighed the benefits of immediate and aggressive suppression given the fire is burning on slopes (upward) of 75 percent.