Fire Forces More Evacuations in N.M.

June 27, 2008

A fire burning in thick trees in New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains that already forced the evacuation of a summer church camp led officials to urge people to leave Tajique and the surrounding area.

Extremely erratic behavior by the Big Spring Fire led U.S. Forest Service officials to urge people to evacuate the village along with the Sherwood Forest subdivision and surrounding neighborhoods. New Mexico doesn’t have mandatory evacuations, so everything is voluntary, forest officials said.

The Big Spring Fire, listed at 300 acres the morning of June 25, 2008, had burned an estimated 1,700 to 2,000 acres by nightfall, said Arlene Perea, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

“The winds haven’t been a major factor. It’s just super dry and there’s just a lot of fuel in there,” Perea said.

The blaze prompted Gov. Bill Richardson to declare a disaster in Torrance County on June 25 because of the danger posed by the flames. The declaration makes emergency state funding available for firefighting efforts and emergency public services.

Forest officials said the fire is about 2 miles from Tajique.

Hundreds of residents from Tajique, Torreon and the surrounding area also fled their homes in May when the human-caused Trigo Fire charred more than 21 square miles and destroyed 59 homes, about 47 of them in the Sherwood Forest subdivision.

Evacuees from the Big Spring Fire were urged to go a Red Cross Center in the Estancia Community Center.

About 150 campers and staff at the Inlow Baptist Youth Camp evacuated on June 24, and the camp is now empty, Perea said.

Air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on the flames Wednesday as ground crews tried to build lines on the northern end of the blaze. Perea said more firefighters, engines and dozers were on their way.

Forest Road 55, known as Fourth of July Canyon Road, was shut down by the fire. Officials asked residents on private land along the road to leave, but no one showed up at an American Red Cross shelter at the Estancia Community Center, Perea said.

A lightning storm on June 23 sparked the blaze in ponderosa pine and pinon-juniper 5 miles west of Tajique.

Meanwhile, hot shot crews have been released from another blaze that has burned more than 49,000 acres near Hope in southern New Mexico. The Rocky Fire was 90 percent contained, and officials expected it to be fully contained by June 25.

Lightning sparked the fire June 17 in the Lincoln National Forest about 20 miles southwest of Hope. The blaze, stretching from far western Eddy County into Otero and Chaves counties, burned on Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and private land in tall grass, shrubs pinon and juniper.

About 120 people, including one hot shot crew, were mopping up. The Rocky Fire has cost more than $2 million to fight so far.

The Lincoln — including all hiking trails and forest roads — remains closed due to high fire danger.

Much of the burned area was on grazing allotments.

Incident Commander Craig Cowie instructed fire crews to haul left over water from fire suppression to livestock watering tanks in the area.

Officials said the ranchers, who have been struggling with severe drought, were “beside themselves” when trucks hauling 31,000 gallons of water arrived and filled the near-empty tanks.

“Seeing the look on the ranchers’ faces and hearing their words of appreciation is something I will never forget,” said fire adviser Mike Atkinson.

Fire crews have wrapped up a smaller, lightning-sparked fire near the Rocky Fire. The West Fire burned 1,432 acres and was fully contained by June 24, fire information officer Deanna Younger said.

Crews in northern New Mexico had the 4,980-acre West Fork Fire 75 percent contained by June 25, and officials predicted it would be fully contained the following day. The fire, on media mogul Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch, has cost $1.9 million to fight.

A light rain on June 24 afternoon reduced the lightning-caused fire to smoldering and smoking, and crews conducted burnout operations in interior islands of fuel on the northern part of the blaze. The following day, they turned to mopping up and patrolling.

Another blaze that started as two separate fires in southern New Mexico has burned about 25,360 acres west of Roswell. The Bonney Fire was 90 percent contained as of June 25.

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