Fast-moving blaze causes evacuations

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Associated Press

PECOS — As firefighters gained ground Friday on a wildfire in the mountains north of Los Angeles, a fast-moving fire in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest prompted evacuations, threatened cabins and vacation homes, and closed a highway.

Officials asked residents in 140 homes — mostly used for the summer — to evacuate as crews battled the 1.6-square-mile blaze near the communities of Pecos and Tres Lagunas, about 25 miles west of Santa Fe. They also evacuated campgrounds and closed trailheads around Pecos, Las Vegas and Santa Fe as they worked on containment lines in hopes of preventing the fire from moving toward the capital city's watershed and the Tres Lagunas community.

Smoke from the blaze decended on the Las Vegas area Friday, forcing most residents to stay inside. As of late Friday morning, the blaze was burning away from the Las Vegas watershed, though Las Vegas/San Miguel Emergency Manager Dennis English said firefighters were mindful that that direction of the fire could change.

There was an eroneous report circulating that Alta Vista Regional Hospital was shutting down because of the fire. A hospital spokeswoman told the Optic late Friday that that rumor was false and that the hospital would remain open with no changes to its normal operation.

New Mexico State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said the evacuations came after the fire jumped state Highway 63.

"Fire activity is picking up this morning, and because of expected high winds, low humidity and increasing temperatures, the spread potential is high," Ware said.

Officials said a downed power line ignited the blaze Thursday. It's the first major wildfire this year in New Mexico, which is in its driest two-year period in nearly 120 years of record keeping.

"It has been a slow start to the season, until this point," said State Forester Tony Delfin. "Now we expect the conditions to go on until the monsoons come or the weather changes the pattern."

Gov. Susana Martinez said about 40 people, mostly hikers and campers, have been evacuated from the area.

Meanwhile, crews battling the fire north of Los Angeles took advantage of cool morning weather to make progress Friday, but scattered flames continued to climb hillsides.

The 2.2-square-mile wildfire was 15 percent contained, and as many as 500 firefighters hoped to make further progress before the day turned hot and dry, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said.

A flare-up prompted authorities to briefly evacuate about 25 homes along a canyon road in the Angeles National Forest in the morning, but residents were later allowed to return.

"Right now the fire's not doing a whole lot. It's just making small runs here and there," Judy said. "There's no large fire front."

He said the blaze was burning near power lines, although utilities reported no damage.

In New Mexico, a helicopter helped with efforts to secure the western perimeter of the fire Friday morning, but it was grounded by late morning due to high winds.

Nearly 300 firefighters were working on the blaze, which was being fueled by winds from the north and northwest.

Duane Archuleta, forest fire management officer for the Santa Fe and Carson national forests, said if winds pushed the blaze toward an area that burned in the 2000 Viveash fire, it might help efforts to contain it.

"The fire could run and hit that ridge and kind of die out on that ridge," he said.

No structures had burned and no injuries were reported, but the fire was burning near Tres Lagunas, an upscale community of cabins and vacation homes.

"They're really working that hard and holding onto that," Archuleta said.

Among those evacuated were a group of seventh-graders staying at the Panchuela Campground.

Some homeowners in the Pecos Canyon area couldn't reach their houses Thursday because emergency crews had closed off state Highway 63.

Tracy Bennett, manager of Hidden Valley Ranch guest ranch north of Pecos, said he evacuated his four guests as soon he saw smoke Thursday.

"The power's out and with all this going on, it's just unnerving," he said Friday as he watched the blaze from the roadblock.


Editor's note: The Optic's Martin Salazar contributed to this report.