Image: Smoke rises into the air from a large forest fire in Gila National Forest, New Mexico
USFS via Reuters
Smoke from the massive New Mexico wildfire rises above Gila National Forest on Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/26/2012 6:21:31 PM ET 2012-05-26T22:21:31

A massive, uncontrolled wildfire has neared to within two miles of a historic New Mexico mining town, leading to a mandatory evacuation Saturday of the dozen or so people there.

Crews suspect the wildfire saw a "substantial increase" overnight but were unable to send up a plane to confirm that, incident spokeswoman Iris Estes told msnbc.com.

The evacuation order is for Mogollon, a historic mining and ghost town that also has several summer homes around it. Estes said 15-16 people were thought to still be in the area.

Gusts up to 50 mph were expected Saturday, she added, making it again impossible for fire crews to deploy retardant-dumping aircraft.

The fire in southwestern New Mexico has destroyed a dozen cabins and spread smoke across the state as well as Arizona, prompting holiday weekend air-quality warnings.

The fire is burning through remote and rugged terrain around the Gila Wilderness and the last official estimate was that it had scorched 85,000 acres or more than 130 square miles.

The heavy smoke apparently disoriented six hikers Friday, prompting the New Mexico National Guard to carry out a rescue.

Col. Michael Montoya said one of them had an injured knee and had to be taken to safety by ambulance. The others were able to walk to a secure area.

More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze that resulted from the merger earlier this week of two lightning-sparked fires. Fire officials say nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds.

The blaze has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings, and the privately owned ghost town of Mogollon was placed under a voluntary evacuation order.

Story: Michigan wildfire grows to more than 21,000 acres

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 as far away as Albuquerque and Santa Fe issued alerts for the holiday weekend, advising people to limit outdoor activities, keep windows closed.

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.

Fires have been testing crews elsewhere as well over the last week:

  • In Colorado, officials said heavy air tankers and thousands of firefighters were on standby Friday as fire managers kept a close watch on high winds and hot temperatures at the start of Memorial Day weekend. Fire danger remains high in the southern Colorado foothills and the South Park area. Two heavy air tankers have been taken to Grand Junction in western Colorado, where the fire danger is highest. The National Weather Service said wind gusts could reach 70 mph Saturday in some western Colorado valleys.
  • In Southern California, firefighters worked to corral a wildfire that has chewed through 3,100 acres of tinder-dry grass and light brush east of Julian. On Friday, the fire forced about 50 people to evacuate an RV park in San Diego County. It earlier prompted the evacuation of about 100 homes in the Shelter Valley area, but residents were allowed to return late Thursday. The fire was 20 percent contained. No injuries or damage to structures were reported.
  • 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.
  • In Nevada, questions were being raised over fire crews' initial response to a backyard burn that rekindled two days later, destroying two homes in a rural community and scorching 7,500 acres. A 911 recording obtained by The Associated Press showed a resident called Sunday to report that a neighbor's permitted burn in the Topaz Ranch Estates was out of control. Volunteer firefighters with the East Fork Fire Protection District arrived at the scene and then left, apparently without extinguishing the blaze. Gusty winds rekindled the fire Tuesday. District Fire Chief Tod Carlini did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Severe weather clouds holiday weekend

  1. Closed captioning of: Severe weather clouds holiday weekend

    >>> to as the unofficial start of summer, this memorial day weekend is feeling a lot like the middle of summer. from temperatures approaching the century mark in the country's midsection, a subtropical storm system taking aim. tonight, tropical storm warnings are up from northern to south carolina for beryl, the second named storm of the season that doesn't officially begin until next week. and then there is the heat with temperatures in the 90s up and down the middle of the country and on top of that, dangerous brush fires in the west. kerry sanders has more on the weather's impact on this busy holiday weekend.

    >> reporter: from storms to wild fires to extreme heat, mother nature does not seem willing to let everyone relax this holiday weekend. among the most anxious spots in the nation, central kansas, where as many as five tornados touched down just before down destroyed homes and businesses. even the division of emergency management was hit. luckily, no one was killed. in various states including arizona, new mexico and michigan, strong winds combined with dry conditions are blamed for raging wildfires. campers invaded the u.p. of michigan. so r far, 21,000 acres have burned. in arizona, 25 mile per hour winds are fuelling the so-called gladuater fire. it's burned more than 16,000 acres so far, but here, good news. firefighters have now gained control of 30% of it. in orlando, a wildfire that had sent clouds of smoke near theme parks today was contained. intersate 4 now reopened. from the indy 500 to chicago to a good portion of the nation, temperatures today were unusually hot. in the 90s. in miami shores . the heat today drove a graduation party into the air-conditioning.

    >> how was the graduation?

    >> really nice. it was in doors. it was cool. no one had to stand outside in the heat.

    >> reporter: from jacksonville to south carolina , beryl has where i happened up the surf. in georgia, life guards have rescued more than 20 people caught in the powerful ocean action. officials in some communities have now closed the beaches to swimming. wading and suntanning is still just fine. while beryl will ruin some barbecues and rooftop parties, it will also bring muff needed rain to one of the most drought stricken areas in our region.

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