By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
The burdens of a relentless heat wave and persistent drought started to give way this week to cooler temperatures and a little bit of rain as hundreds of firefighters tried to rein in a pair of unruly blazes burning through New Mexico’s tinder-dry forests.
They toiled on steep mountainsides to bolster fire lines and made preparations to protect structures that might be in the path of the flames, just as they have every day for the last couple of weeks.
Monday was different though. Their work was done with heavy hearts.
Fire camps around New Mexico were solemn as news spread that 19 firefighters — all members of Arizona’s elite Granite Mountain Hotshots — were killed Sunday after being overrun by flames near the community of Yarnell, Ariz.
One of the first orders of the day by the incident commanders assigned to the Silver Fire — the largest blaze currently burning in New Mexico — was for their crews to stand down before the morning briefing. The few moments were meant to help them “collect their thoughts and to allow folks some time to just process it,” said fire information officer Denise Croker.
“It’s pretty somber,” she said. “You can feel it in the camp. You can see it in the camp.”
“Even though we’re from different states, we’re a small community,” she added.
The loss was being felt just as much in northern New Mexico by those assigned to the Jaroso Fire, which has blacked more than 17 square miles of the Pecos Wilderness, including the headwaters of one of the state’s most popular fishing spots.
And for the few crews remaining on the Thompson Ridge Fire, which raced through part of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the deaths hit even closer to home. The Granite Mountain Hotshots had helped on the fire just two weeks ago.
Gov. Susana Martinez said the team battled to protect lives and property.
“I join New Mexicans in keeping the families of these fallen firefighters in our thoughts and prayers,” she said. “They are heroes who put themselves in harm’s way to protect others, and for that, we are forever grateful.”
She ordered flags flown at half-staff though sunset on Friday in honor of the firefighters killed.
Santa Fe was also mourning the loss of the firefighters. The team had trained and mentored many members of the city’s fire department.
The violent shift in wind that caught the Arizona Hotshots was part of a system that passed over New Mexico earlier.
Now, firefighters assigned to the Silver and Jaroso fires are dealing with much cooler temperatures, double-digit humidity levels and the possibility of afternoon rains.
Fire activity on both fires dropped somewhat Sunday and Monday, officials said.
Due to the dangerous conditions on the Jaroso Fire, crews were being cautious about where to build fire lines. By Monday, there was no containment.
However, the Silver Fire was 50 percent contained. It has consumed more than 208 square miles of the Gila National Forest since being sparked by lightning on June 7.
Fire officials and weather forecasters were also warning residents in the areas of the fires, as well as those who live near other recent burn scars, to be ready for potential flooding and high volumes of runoff as the summer rains approach.
What moisture New Mexico has seen so far this summer has not been enough to put a dent in the drought or lessen the fire danger.
“Just the conditions out here, even with these spotty rain showers, it’s still dry. Very dry,” Croker said. “It’s still a heads-up for everyone.”