Officials worry Sunday fire just the beginning

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson High winds kept a large grass fire going nearly all afternoon Sunday, pushing it from Melrose to just west of U.S. 70 in Clovis.

Sharna Johnson

Fire officials fear the massive fire that ripped through south Curry County on Sunday is only the beginning as dry, hot weather and high winds continue through the region.

Sparked by a tire blowout around around 11 a.m. on a Melrose highway, the fire moved an estimated 25 miles east, stopping short of U.S. 70 several hours later.

On Monday, the state forestry division estimated 17,000 acres burned. Initial estimates placed the expanse of the blaze in the range of 20,000 to 25,000 acres.

By Monday, fire officials reported the blaze was out with personnel monitoring a few small ongoing debris burns near dairies.

Three firefighters were injured — Lt. Rick Qualls, Garrett Nash and Peter Schneider — but have since been treated and released.

Qualls, kept at Plains Regional Medical Center overnight, was “feeling fine and doing well” by morning, Clovis Fire Chief Ray Westerman said.

Only one partially constructed home was confirmed burned Monday morning, but the number was moved to two later in the afternoon. Information on damage, including livestock that might have been killed, other homes destroyed and non-residential structures impacted, is still coming in, according to Westerman.

A more accurate picture of damages is expected by Tuesday at the soonest, he said.

While that information is being compiled, fire crews are working rapidly to get their equipment ready to go again, having exhausted all their resources Sunday.

“It was one of the biggest wildland fires we’ve had here in some time,” Westerman said, “(but) we’re going to have another event. We just don’t know when or where it’s going to happen.

“There’s still plenty more in the county to burn; that’s just one strip.”

Westerman said the fire moved fast at speeds of 30 mph with up to 20-foot flames.

“I think it moved a lot faster and progressed a lot faster than expected. It quickly got by (Melrose’s) capabilities … It was on top of us in a very short time,” he said.

“With 20-foot flames moving at 30 miles per hour there’s not a lot you can do as a firefighter.”

The most recent fire in the area that compared in characteristics and severity was a November 2005 fire in Floyd which destroyed 27,000 acres after high winds moved a blaze from Cannon Air Force Base’s Melrose Bombing Range onto surrounding grasslands.

Westerman said the two fires share “a lot of similarities.”

Crews from 20 or more regional agencies and volunteer departments rushed to the area working to direct the blaze and create breaks to move it away from structures.

With three lines of defense set up at State Road 467, Curry Road N and U.S. 70, firefighters could only try to control the fire’s movement and hope it ran out of fuel.

Westerman said by Sunday evening the fire did run out of fuel, stopping at CR N.

One of the things that helped as the fire moved into populated areas was the fact residents had taken steps to help reduce fire risk on their property.

Firefighters found most homes had cut the grass near structures short, kept debris and flammable away from structures, which, combined with paved and caliche roads and irrigated land, helped stall the burn.

“This fire burned around a lot of homes yesterday,” said Dan Ware, a New Mexico Forestry Division spokesman. “That tells us, whether people consciously are doing work to prepare for fires, or for whatever reason, they had a lot of clear space, and that’s what protected them.”

Residents need to continue taking those measures, Westerman said, with Sunday being an example of why.

“As fast moving as it was, if you hadn’t done any prep, the only thing you had time to do was get out of the way,” he said.

South Curry County resident Becky Lewis said her family decided to get out of the way. They had been watching the fire from their homes all afternoon and after 3 p.m. made the decision to load up their animals.

With horse trailers, trucks and cars lined along Curry Road S, ready to drive north if needed, they were waiting and watching the fire.

“We’re just being careful,” she said, estimating the fire was about one to two miles south of her family’s four homes on Curry Road T. “We got the things out of there that were living.”

The Lewis family loaded up 16 horses and “a lot of dogs,” and were prepared to turn their cattle out if the fire got close, she said.

Officials also evacuated workers at the Southwest Cheese plant as a precaution but later allowed them to return.

Several households between N.M. 467 and U.S. 70 were evacuated by personnel going door-to-door and about mid-way through the afternoon residents south of Brady Avenue were advised to leave the area until fire crews isolated the blaze and prevented it from crossing U.S. 70.

Shelters were established in two Clovis and two Portales churches, but only one Clovis family asked for assistance, said Clovis/Curry County Emergency Planning Director Ken De Los Santos.

In Portales, six people sought shelter, according to Emergency Planning Director Keith Wattenbarger.

A spokesperson for Cannon Air Force Base said there was no fire damage to the base. The spokesperson said the base fire department assisted in extinguishing a small blaze south of the base, a flare apparently set off by the main fire.

There is no rain in the forecast, but more high temperatures and winds between 30 and 45 mph expected until Wednesday, Westerman said, keeping firefighters on a heightened alert.

In the event of a grassfire he said residents should pay attention to their surroundings and what is going on and don’t take chances.

Once a fire moves past, there is some safety, but “you’re not completely out of the woods because another fire could come in behind,” Westerman said.

Westerman said their were a lot of structures that were missed by the Sunday fire and “a lot of lucky homeowners in the path” that were spared because of the work of firefighters and support crews working to divert its progression away from populated areas.