RESERVE, N.M. — Firefighters dug fire lines to impede a fast-moving blaze that charred 37,000 acres of forest land, drawing within three miles of the main ranchhouse of a well known cattle ranch.
Winds gusting to 25 mph had made firefighting more difficult early Friday, but by sundown the winds had died back to a minimal 3 to 5 mph, fire information officer Dave Wells said.
“We“re calling it 40 percent contained,” he said. “That’s the big change today. It’s the first sense that we’re getting some containment.”
Wells said the lack of winds helped firefighters build bulldozer lines in the path of the blaze, which had burned northeastward within 1 1/2 miles of Forest Road 30.
Higher winds, in the 25 mph range, are forecast for the weekend, he said, making it “a very important weekend” to clamp a lid on before winds can get the blaze moving again.
Elk Springs, a cluster of 18 to 20 summer cabins, is located farther west along Forest Road 30. Elk Springs was a target of a voluntary evacuation Wednesday, but by Friday it appeared the fire might have passed that stretch of road, coming closest to F.R. 30 a few miles to the east.
In that area, the O-Bar-O ranch stood in the path of the blaze, Wells said.
A special “strike force” of six structure-protecting fire engines was stationed at the Elk Springs area and at the O-Bar-O.
“This fire is far from out, but some of the risk factors of the subdivision and the O-Bar-O have been mitigated,” Wells said late Friday.
Wells said 37,000 acres isn’t so big when considering the size of the 1.3 million-acre Gila National Forest. He said many areas for camping, hiking and other activities, like the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, remain open.
Forest officials had no estimate when the lightning-caused fire, first spotted Sunday in the Gila Wilderness, might be contained.
Crews hit the flames directly, by building lines along the leading edges, and indirectly, by burning out brush ahead of the fire, giving it nothing to consume, Wells said.
“There are challenges in that a lot of the fire is growing on the light winds, it’s so dry up there. With a little more wind up there, there’s a chance of fanning the flames and making them more intense,” he said.
About 550 firefighters, plus 11 air tankers, two helicopters, 27 engines and six bulldozers are assigned to the Middle Fire.
Air tankers took to the sky again Friday, assaulting the fire with drops of red-dyed retardant slurry. Crews were helped in the ground battle with fire engines and bulldozers.
The fire was burning generally in meadows, grass and brush among ponderosa pines at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, Wells said.
“It’s moving so quickly that the big timber is not being engulfed,” Gila spokeswoman Loretta Ray said.
“It’s consuming the ground fuels and ground litter but fortunately, we have just not seen that torching effect occur or the crowning (flames leaping from treetop to treetop),” she said.
Wells said firefighters describe forest conditions as bone dry, and he urged people to pay attention to fire restrictions around the state.
Roads in the vicinity of the fire are closed.
Forestry officials last Sunday had decided to keep a close watch on the Middle Fire, then at about 100 acres, and allow it to burn out brush.
But flames flared up Wednesday and the fire scorched across 10,000 acres by that night. Firefighters estimated the blaze had burned about 30,000 acres by midday Thursday.
Last week, a fire roared through a subdivision in the Sacramento Mountains near Ruidoso, forcing the evacuation of 1,300 people and destroying 28 homes.
No one was injured in the blaze, which burned 972 acres. Another fire the same week on the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation burned one home and 16,422 acres.