Updated: June 12, 2011 at 12:00 am
Flames raced across rugged terrain on opposite ends of New Mexico on Tuesday as firefighters tried to protect clusters of homes along the Colorado border and the headquarters of the Carlsbad Caverns tourist attraction.
Crews were also working in western New Mexico to stop the spread of a wildfire that had marched across the state line days ago from the White Mountains of Arizona.
Nearly every corner of the state is suffering from severe to extreme drought conditions and the lack of rain and persistent winds have resulted in conditions that are ripe for fast moving fires, fire officials and weather forecasters said.
The Track fire raging near Raton charred more than 24,000 acres by early Tuesday and continued to keep hundreds of residents from their homes in the hills on the outskirts of town.
Interstate 25 between Raton and Trinidad, Colo., remained closed, resulting in traffic backups as travelers were rerouted hours out of their way. Officials said flames on both sides of the highway near Raton Pass were too hot to allow traffic to pass through.
"Right now, it's pretty smoky. The town of Raton is pretty socked in," said fire information officer Arlene Perea. "We don't have the big plume we had yesterday, and that's a good thing, but we have to see what the day brings."
A second fire, the Duckett fire, threatened 40 homes near Westcliffe and forced the evacuation of a church camp.
Crews were somewhat optimistic because the wind had changed direction Tuesday and was pushing the fire back onto itself. The wind was also not expected to be as strong as Monday, when flames could be seen from Raton lighting up tree tops.
"Today and tomorrow, we're really hoping to take advantage of the weather," Perea said. Firefighters on the ground were getting help again Tuesday from a fleet of air tankers and helicopters.
The fire crossed into Colorado late Monday. Fire officials estimated Tuesday morning that about 6,300 acres had been charred in that state.
The fires stretched resources from the Pikes Peak region. Fort Carson sent three firefighting vehicles to the Track fire from Pinon Canyon, where two fires that started last week were 98 percent contained.
The Colorado Springs Fire Department sent four firefighters to battle the Duckett fire, while three are helping at the massive Wallow fire in Arizona and two are in Georgia at another large blaze.
But it stopped deploying firefighters elsewhere to ensure coverage of its own parched landscape.
“We do need to protect our city first,” said Sunny Smaldino, fire spokeswoman. “It’s very important that we’re not depleting our own resources.”
In southern New Mexico, the Loop Fire has raced across more than 14,000 acres of desert scrub and through the rugged limestone canyons near Carlsbad Caverns' headquarters.
The historic cave entrance along with the visitors' center and park housing were in the path of the flames, but fire officials said crews were conducting back-burn operations around the property to reduce the amount of fuel for the fire.
The park, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, was evacuated Monday and remained closed Tuesday. Officials said they would not reopen the park until conditions are safe.
Officials also closed U.S. 62/180 north of the park's entrance south to the Texas state line Tuesday as crews built fire line on the west side of the highway to keep the flames from jumping the pavement.
By mid Tuesday, fire officials reported zero containment on both the Loop and Track fires.
While residents in Carlsbad could see a plume of smoke rising in the distance, those in Raton watched overnight as the hills northeast of the community glowed orange.
"Folks are alert. They know there's a fire," Perea said.
Barbara Riley, owner of the Heart's Desire Bed & Breakfast, has been watching the fire from her place in downtown Raton. It's not like watching television coverage of the other wildfires burning around the Southwest or smelling the smoke that has drifted in from hundreds of miles away.
"You don't know it until you live it," she said.
Firefighters in Custer County dealt with single-digit humidity readings and 45-mph wind gusts while battling the Duckett fire, which had spread Monday to more than 1,000 acres.
The blaze, which started Sunday around 16 miles north of Westcliffe in the San Isabel National Forest, threatens 40 homes and forced the evacuation of a church camp. Nearly 80 children, as well as roughly 100 staff members of the Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp have been evacuated from the area, a camp representative said Monday.
Multiple Hotshot crews were flanked by nearly a dozen fire engines and two bulldozers in fighting the blaze. Two helicopters dumped water on the blaze from above, though high winds kept tankers from pitching in.