Wildfire close to being New Mexico's largest ever - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Wildfire close to being New Mexico's largest ever

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(AP Photo) (AP Photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two lightning-sparked blazes that merged in a mountainous southwestern New Mexico forest are close to becoming the largest wildfire in state history, fire officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. Forest Service said the erratic blaze in Gila National Forest had grown to about 152,000 acres by Tuesday — just 5,000 acres from breaking the state record. It is about 15 miles east of Glenwood, N.M., a small town with a few hundred residents.

More than 1,100 firefighters and nine helicopters from around the state were fighting the blaze. But officials said extremely low humidity will keep making efforts against the fire difficult.

The two lightning-sparked fires merged last week to form the giant blaze, which has destroyed 12 cabins and seven small outbuildings. One fire was first spotted May 9 and the second blaze was sparked May 16, but nearly all of the growth has come in recent days due to relentless winds. Officials also said a "record breaking dry air mass" and persistent drought in the region contributed to the fire's growth.

Those winds forced crews to the sidelines last week as the fire rapidly spread in an isolated area and charred several homes in the community of Willow Creek, which remains under evacuation. Smoke has spread across New Mexico and parts of Arizona, putting cities as far away as Albuquerque under health alerts.

Officials said areas around some of New Mexico's largest cities, including Albuquerque and as far southeast as Roswell, will see smoke by late Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Susana Martinez urged business affected by the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire to apply for low-interest Small Business Administration loans that could become available if enough applicants seek the loans.

"As a result of this fire, small businesses are unquestionably feeling the impact, and I want to make sure that these businesses and their surrounding communities can take advantage of any assistance possible," Martinez said.

A fire last year that burned about 244 square miles was the state's largest. That blaze threatened property around Las Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.

Dry and hot conditions in the Southwest have also fueled wildfires in other states, including Colorado. Hundreds of firefighters were at an 8-square-mile fire in western Colorado near that state's border with Utah, and a separate 4-square-mile blaze about 200 miles southwest of Denver.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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