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Crews make progress in battle with largest wildfire in New Mexico's history

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Mon June 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nearly 1,200 personnel are fighting the Whitewater Baldy Complex wildfire
  • Firefighters use aircraft to ignite low intensity fires in the wildfire's northwest path to rob it of fuel
  • Residents return to an evacuated community
  • The blaze scorches more than 241,000 acres of rugged terrain in southwestern New Mexico

(CNN) -- Firefighters made progress Monday in preventing the spread of the largest wildfire ever in New Mexico, and residents are being allowed to return to an evacuated community.

A total of 1,191 personnel are fighting the Whitewater Baldy Complex wildfire, which is 18% contained, U.S. Forest Service officials said Sunday.

The blaze has scorched more than 241,000 acres of rugged terrain in southwestern New Mexico since it was ignited by two separate lightning strikes last month, fire officials said. The 380 square miles devoured is more than one and a half times the size of Chicago.

Firefighters used aircraft to ignite low intensity fires in the wildfire's northwest path to rob it of fuel Sunday night, officials said.

"Due to yesterday's successes, crews will use the same tactics today," the forest service said in a statement Monday. "Patrol, mop-up and chipping activities will be ongoing all day."

An evacuation order in Mogollon was lifted for residents and business owners Monday; on Wednesday, the community will be open to the public, the fire service said.

The Baldy Fire started May 9 in an inaccessible area of the rugged wilderness and the Whitewater Fire was reported on May 16 several miles away, according to Forest Service officials.

The two fires in the Gila National Forest merged May 23, enhanced by drought and sustained winds of 40 mph to 50 mph, authorities said.

Extreme drought could mean the smoke in the region will persist until the monsoon season, which typically begins in July, said Catherine Torres, secretary of the New Mexico department of health.

The blaze is 15 miles east of Glenwood, New Mexico.

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