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New Mexico historic sites at risk in forest fire

Wildfires burn in New Mexico's Gila National Forest in this NASA satellite image dated May 27, 2012. Diminished winds helped fire crews take
Wildfires burn in New Mexico's Gila National Forest in this NASA satellite image dated May 27, 2012. Diminished winds helped fire crews take

By Zelie Pollon

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Firefighters in New Mexico were working on Monday to protect several Depression-era landmarks from a blaze burning through the rugged high country of the Gila National Forest, fire officials said.

The so-called Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, which destroyed a dozen privately owned cabins at the height of its rampage last week, has burned 122,388 acres of timber since it was ignited by lightning on May 16, fire officials said.

"We did not increase the acreage because the fire burned on the interior yesterday. That's a good thing," said Fire Information Officer Iris Estes. "Now, private land and historic sites are being prepared to be defensible."

Vulnerable structures included the Bearwallow Mountain Lookout Cabins and Shed, which was built in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration as a forest fire lookout, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 for its architectural significance.

"There is a protective wrap that they actually put around the historic cabins themselves, almost looks like aluminum foil," Estes said.

Lighter winds over the weekend were allowing firefighters greater access to the blaze that 907 personnel are fighting with a focus on burnout operations and structure protection.

Also on Monday, fire officials in western Colorado said that lighter wind speeds and cooler temperatures have slowed the growth of two wildfires burning through rugged mountain canyons there.

The Sunrise Mine Fire north of Paradox, Colorado, near the Utah state line has torched 5,200 acres, incident commander Rich Harvey said.

The more favorable weather conditions allowed firefighters to cut a containment line around 30 percent of the blaze by early Monday afternoon, Harvey said.

The Little Sand Fire burning northwest of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, has blackened 2,682 acres in the San Juan National Forest, according to Durango Interagency Dispatch spokeswoman Pam Wilson.

Wilson said the fire is zero percent contained, as steep terrain and stands of dead trees which pose a hazard to firefighters has forced crews to focus on burning out fuels ahead of the flames.

Both fires prompted the closures of campsites and recreational areas over the holiday weekend but no structures have been lost in either blaze, authorities said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing By Edith Honan and Philip Barbara)