- Associated Press - Monday, May 12, 2014

SILVER CITY, N.M. (AP) - A sortie of air tankers and helicopters took advantage of a break in the windy weather Monday to drop water and fire retardant on New Mexico’s first major wildfire of the season.

The Signal Fire in the Gila National Forest just north of Silver City grew to more than 4,700 acres since being sparked a day earlier. The blaze scuttled Mother’s Day celebrations and led some tourists to leave the area early.

This marks one of the first large fires of the season in New Mexico, a state that has been battered by drought and persistently high fire danger for the last few years. The state has experienced record-setting fire seasons during two of the last three years, and land managers are concerned this summer could be another record-setter given the dry conditions.

The Gila National Forest is no stranger to large fires. In 2012, the Whitewater-Baldy blaze raced across more than 450 square miles of the forest to become the largest fire in the state’s recorded history. Gila managers also have spent the last few decades trying to perfect the use of fire to clear out dead and down brush across the remote forest.

As crews worked from the air and on the ground to corral the Signal Fire, Gov. Susana Martinez sent a letter Monday to city and county leaders around the state. She urged them to consider limiting the sale and use of fireworks given the weather conditions and high fire danger.

“In these conditions, we cannot afford to have even one careless, human-caused fire,” the governor wrote.

The Signal Fire was likely caused by people, but an investigation is ongoing, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Brian Martinez said.

More than 280 firefighters and other personnel were battling the fire. A total of 18 aircraft, including air tankers and helicopters, took to the skies Monday to help with the effort. But there was no containment by the evening.

Authorities also are working on an evacuation plan, but forest officials said they weren’t sure which areas would be affected.

Some residents and tourists have left the area on their own and a portion of New Mexico 15 is closed, Brian Martinez said.

The Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House in Pinos Altos, just south of the fire, was one of the businesses affected. The restaurant and entertainment venue was booked for a Mother’s Day feast but came up short after about 40 groups canceled their reservations, owner Kurt Harala said.

“We had a full staff, and all of sudden everybody’s just standing, waiting for the people to arrive,” he said.

Gusts helped drive the flames Sunday, but conditions for firefighters were more favorable Monday with less wind and cooler temperatures.

Harala said the fire looked terrible on Sunday.

“It just exploded within a short period of time,” he said.

The Pinos Altos area, which rests along NM 15, has not been evacuated. But some visitors left on their own Sunday after the blaze sent up plumes of smoke.

Daniel Bejarano, manager of Bear Creek Motel and Cabins, said two guests checked out early after the fire began. The cabins are less than a mile from the Gila National Forest.

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