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Arson eyed in New Mexico wildfire

Wildfires lit the night sky in a glowing orange along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Wildfires lit the night sky in a glowing orange along the banks of the Rio Grande.

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(CNN) -- Fire crews from Albuquerque and at least 15 other communities Thursday battled wildfires that lit the night sky in a glowing orange along the banks of the Rio Grande, forcing the evacuation of neighborhoods, an apartment complex and a shopping center, a fire official said.

Arson was being investigated as a cause.

"It's possible 200 homes could be threatened if the fire gets out of control," said Lt. John Garcia of the Albuquerque Fire Department. "There's a real concern about the number of homes in jeopardy."

Deputy fire chief Robert Montoya said the flames were burning close to the Bosque School, a college preparatory school, but had not damaged the campus.

By early Thursday, an area a mile long and 300 yards wide had burned. Smoke billowed into the night air as tanker trucks doused the flames and glowing embers consuming the trees and brush. A Tuesday night fire charred about 700 acres.

The area of the city burning is known as the bosque, which means the forest in Spanish.

Evacuations include the Thomas Village and Dietz Farm neighborhoods, a shopping center and the Riverside Plaza apartments, Garcia said. Up to 15 square miles of the city have been evacuated, according to Montoya.

Increasing the difficulty for firefighters, according to Garcia, are the winds which are "picking up and going multiple directions."

About 30 city fire units have been called to the scene, he said, with an equal number being provided by neighboring communities under a mutual aid agreement.

The cause of the fire is uncertain, but may have been arson, he said. There were reports of "kids" running away from the area where the fire started.

Garcia said conditions along the river are like a tinderbox in an area filled with cottonwood trees, dry brush and ivy.

"It's real dry," he said. "There's been no rain in quite a while."

The lack of precipitation and use fireworks ahead of the Fourth of July holiday are a recipe that has often sparked fires in the past.

"It's something we always expect this time of year," Garcia said, "but to have two back-to-back is almost unheard of."

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