- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Officers went door to door Monday, asking residents of a sparsely populated area to leave their homes as a wildfire raged in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains.

Forest officials could not immediately say how many families were affected by the evacuations in the community of Jarosa and the surrounding area.

The Diego Fire has ballooned to more than a square mile, making it five times bigger than it was the day before. An infrared flight planned Monday night will allow for a more accurate estimate of how much ground the fire has covered.

The blanket of smoke hanging over the region has made it difficult to gauge the fire’s size, said Dolores Maese, a spokeswoman with the Santa Fe National Forest.

As crews faced hot, dry conditions, the plume could be seen as far away as Albuquerque, some 80 miles to the south, serving as a reminder of the high fire danger that has plagued New Mexico and much of the West.

Also Monday, Lincoln National Forest officials in southern New Mexico received several reports of smoke following a lightning storm. Three new fires were detected, and firefighters were dispatched to assess them.

For the Diego Fire, structure protection crews were in place, but authorities could not say whether any homes or other structures were immediately threatened.

An air attack has been ordered and more resources were on the way to aid four Hotshot crews and the engine crews battling both flames and the weather, Maese said.

“It looks like the weather is going to be hot and dry again, so we can expect to see the same type of fire behavior,” she said.

Aside from Monday’s high temperatures, crews were also bracing for a change in the weather that could bring downbursts of erratic wind and dry thunderstorms.

More than 200 firefighters and support personnel have been assigned to the lightning-sparked blaze first reported last week. Maese said computer modeling indicated a wave of lightning strikes on June 15 likely ignited the fire.

Fire danger statewide led agencies to close off forested areas ahead of the Fourth of July, when New Mexico’s most populous county expects numerous calls through its emergency communication center.

The U.S. Forest Service announced the closure of the Sandia and Mountainair ranger districts last week, and Bernalillo County officials said Monday that open space in the mountains east of Albuquerque would also be off limits.

All 12 county fire stations will be taking turns patrolling the east mountains, the Albuquerque foothills and the wooded area along the Rio Grande, Fire Operations Chief Scott Aragon said.

Fire restrictions are also in place across the Lincoln and Gila national forests in southern New Mexico, and many communities have imposed fireworks restrictions due to the high fire danger, including Ruidoso and Las Cruces.

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