ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Crews battling New Mexico's largest-ever wildfire dropped from helicopters into remote terrain on Saturday to fight blazes burning in deep, rugged canyons in the mountains of the southwest.
The Whitewater-Baldy Complex blaze has consumed 227,000 acres and is only 15 percent contained, although progress has been made in spite of hot, windy conditions, Fire Information Officer Brienne Magee said.
Specialized heli-rappellers have been dropped in from helicopters, and elite "hotshot crews" called in to fight the blaze that was started by lightning on May 16.
The complexity of the fire and terrain meant many different types of crews and tools had to be employed, Magee said.
"What we're working with here is really rough and really steep. There are some areas where the most effective way to get firefighters into some places is to use helicopters and to rappel them in," Magee said.
While progress was being made, increased heat and wind in the area were complicating the effort, she said.
The firefighters dropped by helicopter extinguish isolated blazes, provide reconnaissance, and then usually hike out on their own, she said.
More than 1,200 people have been involved in fighting the fire, which has been burning through thick Ponderosa pine, spruce and mixed conifer in the Gila National Forest. Twelve homes and several outbuildings have so far been burned.
Last June, a wildfire dubbed Las Conchas burned 156,593 acres and threatened the town of Los Alamos and the national laboratory there known for its work with nuclear weapons.
On Saturday, firefighters were performing cleanup operations and shoring up fire lines in and around the old mining town of Mogollon, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Officials closed the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on Thursday due to smoke generated from the fire. The National Park Service said the closure will remain in effect until conditions improve.
The wildfire near the Arizona border is fueling experts' predictions that this is a preview of things to come across the West as several states contend with a dangerous mix of wind, low humidity and tinder-dry fuels.
There are still some pockets of unburned vegetation within the fire's perimeter, and members of the incident management team have estimated that a majority of the fire has left behind only minimal to moderate fire scars.
It's too early for the ecologists, soil scientists and hydrologists to get on the ground to start assessing the fire's effects, but they are hopeful much of the area can recover given that only a portion of the fire has burned with the kind of intensity that can vaporize entire stands of trees and damage the soil.
Another factor in the fire's behavior is the Gila forest's decades-old strategy of allowing lightning-sparked fires to play more of their natural role in cleaning up the forest's litter. Fires within the Gila Wilderness are often managed rather than immediately extinguished.
The Whitewater-Baldy fire has already run into previously burned areas, which fire managers say have helped slow the flames.
"The fact that this is wilderness and the wilderness of the Gila has seen a lot of fires, we are comfortable with allowing it to burn. What we do is monitor it and help steer it around to keep some of the impacts lower than they would otherwise be on their own," said Danny Montoya, an operations section chief with the Southwest Incident Management Team.
Montoya said the rugged terrain has forced firefighters to attack the flames indirectly by starving the fire of fuels along its perimeter.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.