- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The dry conditions and sweltering temperatures that had fueled a wildfire that charred 28 square miles in central New Mexico were memories Friday as showers and thunderstorms allowed hundreds of firefighters to close in on the remaining hot spots.

Up to three inches of rain fell on the blaze that has been burning in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque. Fire activity was significantly reduced Friday, and more moisture was expected over the weekend.

“I think we dodged a bullet really,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told The Associated Press in a phone interview after touring the charred area with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.

They saw swaths of blackened forest and the home of one resident who had more than four decades of possessions go up in flames.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Udall said. “If the weather pattern had been a little bit different, we could have had many more homes and communities threatened.”

The fire forced the evacuations of several small communities and subdivisions along the mountain range. Two dozen homes and 21 other structures were destroyed.

The blaze was more than 80 percent contained, but officials are concerned about the possibility of flooding in areas left barren by the blaze.

Aerial surveys assessing the severity of the burn have been completed, and the Forest Service expects to have recommendations prepared by July 1 for mitigating any flood threats.

Officials with the federal Small Business Administration also are assessing damage.

Aside from more favorable firefighting weather, Tidwell said it was the thinning of vegetation and other preparations made in the Manzanos in recent years that kept the fire from being more severe.

More preparations are going to have to be made across the West as more people move into the wildland-urban interface, he said.

“There are 44 million homes out there now,” Tidwell said. “That’s just going to increase. We’re going to continue to have fires. But we can reduce the number of homes that are lost every year, and we can reduce the threat to our firefighters. What it’s going to take is for us to be proactive. We know what we need to do.”

Both Tidwell and Udall also acknowledged that budget changes need to be made if the agency is going to keep up.

“We’re fighting to make sure we have every dollar we need for suppression, and then we also need to have the dollars for prevention and thinning,” Udall said. “We shouldn’t be borrowing from those prevention dollars to fight fires.”

In northern New Mexico, hot shot crews and helicopters were battling a blaze in a rugged area just 3 miles from one of Santa Fe’s municipal reservoirs. The fire was estimated at several acres, and officials said crews were making progress thanks to showers and thunderstorms.

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