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Firefighters rescue Cinder the elk calf from fire’s ashes

Firefighter Nate Sink cradles a newborn elk calf he encountered in a remote, fire-scarred area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Mora, New Mexico (Nate Sink/AP)
Firefighter Nate Sink cradles a newborn elk calf he encountered in a remote, fire-scarred area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Mora, New Mexico (Nate Sink/AP)

Firefighters have rescued an abandoned newborn elk calf found amid the ashes of the US’s largest wildfire.

It comes as calving season approaches its peak in New Mexico and fires rage across the American west.

Firefighter Nate Sink said he found the motionless elk calf on the ground of a fire-blackened New Mexico forest as he patrolled and extinguished lingering hot spots.

“The whole area is just surrounded in a thick layer of ash and burned trees. I didn’t think it was alive,” said Mr Sink, who was deployed to the state to help contain a wildfire that by Wednesday had spread across 486 square miles and destroyed hundreds of structures.

It is one of five major fires burning in New Mexico amid extremely dry and windy conditions.

More than 3,000 firefighters battling the biggest blaze have made significant progress halting its growth in recent days ahead of more dangerous fire conditions forecast to return into the weekend, crew commanders said on Wednesday night.

The elk calf rests alone
The elk calf rests alone (Nate Sink/AP)

Wildlife officials in general discourage interactions with elk calves that are briefly left alone in the first weeks of life as their mothers forage at a distance.

Mr Sink says he searched diligently for traces of the calf’s mother and found none.

The 32lb singed bull calf, dubbed Cinder, was taken for care to a nearby ranch and is now regaining strength at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Espanola, north of Santa Fe.

Veterinarian Kathleen Ramsay at Cottonwood Rehab said she paired Cinder with a full-grown surrogate elk to be raised with as little human contact as possible.

“They do elk things, they don’t do people things,” said Ms Ramsay, noting Cinder arrived at a tender days-old age with his umbilical cord still attached.

Ms Ramsay said the calf can hopefully be released into the wild in December after elk-hunting season.

The strategy has worked repeatedly with elk tracked by tags as they rejoin wild herds.

A pair of deer are seen grazing by a burn scar following a wildfire near Las Vegas, New Mexico
A pair of deer are seen grazing by a burn scar following a wildfire near Las Vegas, New Mexico (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

Wildfires have broken out this spring in multiple states in the west, where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires.

Crews battling the biggest US fire in northern New Mexico took advantage of one last day of favourable weather on Wednesday before hotter, drier and windier conditions are forecast to return late on Thursday and continue to worsen into next week.

“All across the fire, we’re making a lot of really good progress over the last few days,” incident commander Carl Schwope said at a briefing on Wednesday night.

“We do have some more critical fire weather moving in … starting now and getting warmer and drier throughout the weekend. (But we are) feeling real confident that we are ahead of the curve on that,” he said.

Bruno Rodriguez, a meteorologist assigned to the fire, said gusts should continue to increase by about 5mph per day, from 25mph on Thursday to as strong as 50mph by Monday.

“It’s definitely going to be a critical fire weather pattern and unfortunately it’s going to be fairly prolonged and persistent,” he said.