Black Fire moves quickly through the Gila
Terrain of the second-largest blaze in the state presents hazards and challenges for firefighters
View above the Black Fire on May 16, 2022 (Public domain photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)
Forecasts show only a slight chance of rain this evening — and no chance this weekend — in southwestern New Mexico, where the Black Fire consumes the Gila and remains mostly unchecked.
During one of the worst wildfire years ever recorded in state history, the Black Fire emerged last month in the Gila National Forest.
About 30 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences, it’s the second-largest wildfire burning in the state.
As of Thursday, June 2, at 5:30 p.m.
The Black Fire torched 262,695 acres.
It is 26% contained.
The Black Fire started on May 13, and just a couple of weeks later, it’s only about 50,000 acres away from burning as much land as the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire still blazing in the north.
The Black Fire is spreading quickly across the Gila National Forest, consuming dry timber and tall grass fuels. Its growth is intensified further by high temperatures and winds. There are high rates of spread in unburned areas due to fine or fast-drying fuels, a result of 2021’s robust monsoons.
Fires tend to burn uphill, especially when pushed by winds, which is happening in the Black Fire, said Evan Burks, spokesperson for the crew in command of the fire, the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 3. Winds are pushing the flames and embers into canyons and drainages on the south and southeast sides.
“Fire is opportunistic, and … under these conditions, if it finds fuels and there’s wind and slope that are aligned together, it’s going to burn,” Burks said.
The containment team took command on Tuesday May 31, and 831 personnel have been deployed. They are facing challenges on the south side of the fire, because it’s made its way to the burn scar left by the 2013 Silver Fire. Firefighters are also challenged by the terrain, as well as the remote location, Burks said, and so they’re using indirect tactics and creating fire lines — barriers of mineral soil — away from the fire’s edge to slow it down.
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The wilderness presents precarious conditions and risks for deploying firefighters on-scene. There’s potential for dead trees to fall and hurt personnel, Burks noted. And if people are injured or the fire changes course, it’s difficult to get them out because the area is so remote.
“Our No. 1 priority is going to be keeping the firefighters safe,” Burks said.
The north edge of the Black Fire is largely contained, with a long sector of the west and a part of the eastern perimeter contained as well. In the northwest, a burnout operation — where the team set fire inside a control line to try to eliminate combustible material — was ongoing Thursday. It’s being held well by the team, Burks said, though that section of the fire can’t quite be considered contained yet.
Historically, New Mexico’s monsoon season puts out the flames, but that’s not expected until mid-June. Humidity from potential thunderstorms has been increasing overnight, which helps “moderate the fire growth in some areas,” Burks said.
Fire behavior analysts and incident meteorologists provide information for predicted fire behavior, but the future of the fire is still largely up in the air.
“This is a wildfire. Wildfires can be unpredictable, so we don’t have a crystal ball that can look out into the future,” Burks said.
The Black Fire was human-caused, according to officials, and Burks said law enforcement is investigating. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires were also human-caused, starting as prescribed burns lit by the U.S. Forest Service. Those two merged in late April.
No recreational drones allowed
A temporary flight restriction is in place over the Black Fire and some of its perimeter — generally less than 10 aerial miles around it — prohibiting non-firefighting aircraft. Permitted aircraft are dropping water on hotspots along the fire’s edge.
Anyone caught flying prohibited aircraft can be heavily fined and even face criminal charges. People violating similar restrictions have been reported in northern New Mexico, most recently recreational drones that jeopardize firefighting efforts. They were reported in mid-May at the site of the Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains.
These violations are dangerous to pilots fighting the fires, Burks said.
If they start happening down south, too, “we’ll have to shut air operations down, which could, you know, make the difference between life and property being saved,” he said.
Much of the Gila National Forest is closed to visitors. “Fire including charcoal and briquettes, smoking, welding and open flames, and vehicles” are prohibited across the Gila, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Highway 59 from Mud Hole to the 59/150 intersection is closed, along with Forest Road 150 at the North Star Helispot.
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