NM inferno continues to spread

Los Alamos wildfire becomes largest in the state's history

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (UPI) | July 1, 2011

"at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we've seen since the last Ice Age"

—Grant Meyerm University of New Mexico

The wildfire engulfing Los Alamos, N.M., mountains and canyons is defying belief in its destruction as it becomes the state's largest ever, a fire chief said.

"We're seeing fire behavior we've never seen down here, and it's really aggressive," Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas Tucker told reporters Thursday as the voracious inferno consumed 93,000 acres, or 145 square miles, on the once-volcanic Jemez Mountains, just west of Los Alamos and the secretive Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's top nuclear weapons lab.

The Las Conchas blaze, which devoured more than 23,000 acres in 24 hours, was expected to plunder more than 1,000 additional acres early Friday, making it New Mexico's biggest fire ever, out-consuming 2003's Dry Lakes fire, which burned 94,000 acres, or 150 square miles, near the Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico.

Tucker said earlier hopes of lifting evacuations this weekend had been dashed.

The fire's enormity, on top of other severe wildfires in recent years, is geologically extraordinary -- "at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we've seen since the last Ice Age," geologist Grant Meyer of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque told the Christian Science Monitor.

He attributed a shift in recent decades to "climatic warming," as human industrial activity and land-use changes have pumped increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

New Mexico, along with much of Texas and parts of the U.S. Southeast, are suffering from extreme to exceptional drought conditions, data published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska indicated.

The Las Conchas fire, believed sparked by a downed power line, was fanned by strong southerly winds Thursday. Weather forecasters predict scattered thunderstorms late Friday.

More than 1,200 firefighters were battling the blaze.

In Florida meanwhile, firefighting officials in Florida said Thursday the Honey Prairie fire has burned nearly 287,000 acres in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

The fire consumed 3,000 acres in the past three days, the Jacksonville (Fla.) Times-Union reported Thursday. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge extends into southern Georgia.

Some of the new acreage burned was the result of strategic burning operations to eliminate vegetation along firebreaks, said John Nicholls, a fire information officer. "The fire's just creeping along."

Nicholls said conditions for fighting the fire aren't good. The region has a 20-inch rainfall deficit for the year, He told the Times-Union analysts are working with local foresters to determine which areas are most likely to burn.

Nicholls said the number of personnel assigned to fight the fire has fallen, dropping to 1,244 from 1,385, because some rainfall had helped firefighters, and because fire lines have kept the blaze from growing too much.

Firefighters continued to patrol and mop up hot spots in the Sweat Farm Again fire. That fire is 70 percent contained and has burned more than 19,000 acres. The Race Pond fire is 69 percent contained and has burned more than 20,000 acres.

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