New Mexico fire forces evacuations of Mogollon; the air tanker shortage becomes obvious

Whitewater-Baldy fire, as seen from the old Negrito fire lookout tower, 5-26-2012, NWS photo
Whitewater-Baldy fire, as seen from the old Negrito fire lookout tower, 5-26-2012, NWS photo
Whitewater-Baldy fire, as seen from the old Negrito fire lookout tower, 5-26-2012. NWS photo

The Whitewater-Baldy fire in western New Mexico continues to grow virtually unchecked. Before Saturday’s additional romp, it had burned 82,252 acres and there was no containment of the perimeter. (See the map of the fire below.) By Saturday evening the size was 100,000 acres, according to New Mexico State Forestry.

The Catron County Sheriff’s Office required a mandatory evacuation of the town of Mogollon. This is not an ordinary evacuation, since the population is listed at zero, but there are structures that will be endangered that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Smoke map - 913 pm MDT, May 26, 2012
Smoke map - 9:13 p.m. MDT, May 26, 2012. NOAA

For the last several days the fire has been adding tens of thousands of acres daily, while putting huge quantities of smoke into the air. At Wildfire Today, this morning we received three calls from residents of Colorado, including one from the Denver area, from people who thought they may be in danger from a nearby fire, but the smoke they were seeing and smelling was generated by the Whitewater-Baldy fire, 470 miles away from Denver.

Smoke Whitewater-Baldy fire 715 pm MDT May 26, 2012
Smoke Whitewater-Baldy fire 7:15 p.m. MDT, May 26, 2012. NOAA and Wildfire Today

Type 1 Incident Management Team led by Incident Commander Tony Sciacca was ordered on May 24. They completed their transition and assumed command of the fire at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, May 26. At that time the resources assigned to the fire included 26 engines, 2 dozers, 4 helicopters, 13 hand crews, and 586 personnel.

This is fewer resources than were on the 2,500-acre Banner fire east of Julian, California on Thursday, which had in the early stages of the fire, 40 engines, 6 air tankers, 6 helicopters, and 8 hand crews. By Saturday when the Banner fire had grown to 4,100 acres but was winding down and resources were being released, CAL FIRE’s web site listed the resources assigned as follows: 73 engines, 2 dozers, 2 air tankers, 7 helicopters, 47 hand crews, and 965 personnel.

Saturday morning there were only two large air tankers in New Mexico, working out of Albuquerque. In the afternoon, Neptune’s Tanker 40, the BAe-146 jet, began its contract for this year and flew from their Missoula base to Albuquerque, presumably to work on the Whitewater-Baldy fire.

Here is an excerpt from the Incident Management Team’s Saturday morning update:

Today’s weather calls for another difficult day for firefighting. Sustained and gusting winds from the south and southwest will elevate the fire behavior beyond the critical point and crews are anticipated to face extreme conditions. Fire crews will continue in their attempt to gain control of this aggressive fire.

The greatest potential for fire growth will be generally to the north/northwest, with the fire being pushed by the high winds.

Where possible, structure protection measures are being implemented where homes and outbuildings are located.

Crews will be working to strengthen existing fire lines along the northeast section of the fire and will scout contingency lines. Additional helicopters have been ordered to support ground crews and provide structure protection if needed. Fire growth to the south and to the east is expected to moderate due to the fire entering an area of old fire burns where the fuel load is less.

Whitewater-Baldy fire 303 pm MDT May 26, 2012
Map of the Whitewater-Baldy fire, showing heat detected by satellites at 3:03 p.m., MDT May 26, 2012. The red areas are most recently burned.

The locations of the 11 large air tankers on contract this year, as of Saturday morning:

  • 2 in California
  • 2 in Colorado
  • 1 in Arizona (there is an unconfirmed report this was later moved to California)
  • 2 in New Mexico
  • 3 in Nevada
  • 1 in Missoula (later moved to New Mexico)

It is only May. We are barely beginning to enter the traditional western fire season, but the shortage of large air tankers is woefully apparent. There are not enough of them for initial attack on new fires, or enough after the little fires escape initial attack and become extraordinarily large. Ten years ago we had four times as many air tankers as we have today. It is obvious that 11 air tankers are totally inadequate.

Climate change is happening, and wildfires are larger than they used to beAir tanker change is also happening, but has gone in the other direction. A logical person would expect that there would be a commensurate change in our firefighting capability. But the management of our firefighting resources, and especially our aerial firefighting resources, has not always been logical in recent years.

Meanwhile, the three Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT), the two DC-10s and the 747, sit, unused, since the U.S. Forest Service is not interested in awarding exclusive use contracts for these aircraft that can carry five to ten times more retardant than the 10 P2Vs we are currently using. If the three VLATs each made one sortie to a fire, they would carry, combined, twice as much fire retardant as the ten P2Vs combined. The VLATs are not the panacea for fire suppression, and are not the perfect aerial resource for every fire, but, there are no other large air tankers available and ready to fly right now, and they can carry a shitload of fire retardant. It is crazy for the U.S. Forest Service, especially under these climate conditions, and the fire situation we find ourselves in today, to not utilize these resources.

See the latest update on the Whitewater-Baldy fire, dated May 27, 2012.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “New Mexico fire forces evacuations of Mogollon; the air tanker shortage becomes obvious”

  1. Liz, you’re correct. We need to praise the firefighters, and hold the Washington elite accountable. The decisions made in washington are not being made for the good of the people, rather for the good of politics and money. I don’t want to get off on a political rant, but the local people who are being effected by this and all the fires in the west need to ask the question, Why? Why do we have just 25% of air tankers compared to just 10 years ago ? Why are there tankers sitting in California and Washington state right now not being used? Why is the USFS not interested in talking to companies that have air tankers that are much newer than any of the P2 air tankers flying now? The USDA and USFS should be held accountable.

  2. Bless the fire fighters and shame on whoever it is at the top that has cut funding for our forest service. They bail out banks and waste tons of money while our home and forest are burning!

  3. i hope the residents and business owners make it safely through the fire
    and that there is no damage.

    bless the firemen and keep them safe

  4. I have a business in Mogollom, NM. The population of our wonderful historic ghost town is 17 people. We have 5 businesses open from Mid-May through Mid- Oct. About 11 of the 17 residents evacuated on Sat. 5-26-12 by noon. Six residents have chosen to stay. Our fire crews have done a phenominal job. We are so grateful for their help with this very unpredictable fire.

    1. Thank you for the update on your precious community. You and the firefighters are in my prayers.

  5. “In the afternoon, Neptune’s Tanker 40, the BAe-146 jet, began its contract for this year and flew from their Missoula base to Albuquerque, presumably to work on the Whitewater-Baldy fire.” Why aren’t they in Silver City? If we had based tankers here like we had up until May 2004, they could have hit the fire when it all started and before the winds got so bad. This is rough country and tankers are a great tool for working fires here. It’s heartbreaking. There are folks living in Mogollon, there’s even a factory up there.

  6. 1:17a 27 May 2012 Parker, CO – the smell of smoke woke me up, I went outside to see who’s house was burning and make sure it wasn’t mine! From the map, must be this fire … wow.

  7. Tanker 44 is at Porterville (as of 2:59PM, 05/26/2012) with CAL FIRE airtankers 76 and 78.


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