Wildfire burns empty Boy Scouts' buildings in dry New Mexico

A wildfire raced across a swath of tinder-dry forest in northeastern New Mexico on Friday, sending up a thick plume of smoke that forced residents to flee their homes as heat and wind threatened to drive the flames.

The blaze destroyed about a dozen empty buildings on the Boy Scouts' storied Philmont Ranch and threatened nearly 300 homes, officials say. The flames were first reported Thursday and ballooned quickly in a part of New Mexico hardest hit by a severe drought gripping the American Southwest.

More than 60 percent of the U.S. West is experiencing some level of drought, the latest federal drought maps show, forcing national forests and other public lands to close because of escalating fire danger. The area where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet is at the center of a large patch of exceptional drought.

Dry, windy and warm weather was expected to make conditions worse as the New Mexico fire burned on state and private land, including part of the Boy Scouts' ranch, state forestry spokeswoman Wendy Mason said. Estimates put the blaze at more than 25 square miles (66 square kilometers). Its cause isn't known.

Officials say no scouts were at the ranch and all staff members were accounted for. Employees who live in the nearby community of Cimarron were allowed to leave to care for their families.

Authorities ordered residents in Cimarron and surrounding areas to evacuate Friday as the smoke drifted east. At the historic St. James Hotel in Cimarron, the phone went unanswered after the popular tourist destination had emptied out along with the rest of the town.

The U.S. Postal Service also evacuated post offices in Cimarron and the smaller community of Ute Park, telling residents they would have to travel about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away to get their mail.

Officials were concerned about air quality. Evacuation centers were set up in nearby towns as residents shared information on social media about where to take refuge and where animals and livestock could be left.

Forecasters said the towering plume of smoke had reached about 20,000 feet (6,100 meters).

A top-tier incident management team was being assigned to the Ute Park Fire, which had crossed a highway and forced its closure. Other roads also were closed.

Crews used several air tankers and a few helicopters to fight the flames from above.

In western New Mexico, gusty winds fanned a wildfire that has burned 38 square miles of forest, blowing embers past containment lines and starting spot fires.

Officials said about one-third of the fire was contained as of Friday, but firefighters faced the challenge of having to both stop the growth of the main fire while patrolling for spot fires. That human-caused fire started May 22 and is east of Reserve on the Gila National Forest.