Firefighters check piles being burnt from salvage logging along the edge of the Gila National Forest blaze in New Mexico.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- A rugged swath of forest in southwestern New Mexico pumped out more columns of smoke Tuesday as U.S. Forest Chief Tom Tidwell surveyed the burn scar being left behind by what has developed into the largest wildfire in the nation.
Tidwell took an early morning aerial tour of the blaze, which has scorched more than 400 square miles since being sparked by lightning about three weeks ago. The fire became the largest in New Mexico's recorded history after making daily runs across tens of thousands of acres as winds whipped fiercely.
Tidwell said his flight over the fire brought home its size and the ruggedness of the Gila wilderness.
"I know there are a lot of times people question why we're not able to get in there and put out these fires right away," he said. "If folks could actually see how rugged the terrain is, how steep these canyons are, how much fuel is there, the size of the timber and how inaccessible it is, I think they would quickly understand."
Tidwell and other federal officials earlier this spring had predicted this would be a busy fire season as drought sweeps across a broader section of the West, leaving overgrown forests even more susceptible than last year.
"We get a start at the right time and we get the right weather conditions, we're going to have some large fires," he said during a news conference Tuesday in Albuquerque. "What we need to focus on is making sure our communities understand that."
A lack of moisture combined with already dry fuels and warm temperatures are making for challenging conditions across the southern half of the United States. And Tidwell said the central part of the West - from Colorado to California and up through southern Oregon - can expect fire danger to increase.
"We're probably going to have to deal with this down here for another four to six weeks at least before hopefully we'll get some summer rains," Tidwell said.
More than 1,100 firefighters have been assigned to the 259,000-acre Whitewater-Baldy fire. There have been only a handful of minor injuries, but firefighting efforts elsewhere have turned deadly.
Over the weekend, two pilots were killed when their air tanker crashed while fighting a fire in southern Utah.
Tidwell said the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
"Our hearts go out to these pilots. They're as much a part of the firefighter community as anybody else is. It's just tragic when we lose them," he said.
In New Mexico, firefighters were building lines and conducting more burnout operations to keep the Whitewater-Baldy fire from making any aggressive runs along its boundaries. That way, crews could control the severity of the burn, said fire information officer Gerry Perry.
"We still have active fire within the perimeter, but they're a little more comfortable that they've got a handle on it," he said. "That doesn't mean the fire is over, but things are looking better."
Crews in the northern part of the state also were working Tuesday to contain a lightning-sparked blaze in the Santa Fe National Forest. The smoke could be seen dozens of miles away in Rio Rancho, N.M.
Forest officials said that fire started Sunday night and had burned about 190 acres southeast of Jemez Springs. No structures were being threatened, and no evacuations were planned.
With fires burning around the West and more expected as the season ramps up, Tidwell said he was confident the agency has the resources - both financial and in terms of equipment and crew - to respond. The Forest Service budgets $70 million a year for firefighting aircraft out of $2 billion overall fighting wildfires.
So far, fire information officers say the Whitewater-Baldy fire has cost an estimated $15.4 million to fight.
Congress has appropriated enough for what Tidwell calls a "moderate" season. Since it's expected to get busy, he said funds can be transferred from other accounts to cover costs.
"We've practiced good, sound financial management with fires, just like we do with every other part of our agency, but that doesn't factor into the decisions we're making," Tidwell said. "The decisions are based on what needs to occur, what's the right way to do this, what's the safe way to do this, and that's what determines what strategy we apply to these fires."