By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
High winds fanned a grass fire across an estimated 20,000 acres shutting down U.S. 70 for nearly three hours Wednesday.
“They were fighting a very aggressive fire and fighting it very aggressively,” said Portales Police Department public information officer Lonnie Berry.
Sustained winds of up to 35 mph quickly turned the fire into a monster, according to Portales Fire Department Chief John Bridges.
“Anytime you respond to a grass fire, if it’s blowing in town, you know it’s going to be twice as bad out in the county,” Bridges said. “We were hoping U.S. 70 would create a barrier for it but it jumped a four-lane highway.”
Bridges said the fire started near mile marker 2 on the east side of N.M. 467 (Air Base Highway) just before 3 p.m. Wednesday. He said the fire quickly fanned out to a mile-wide front as it roared toward U.S. 70, four miles to the east.
According to Bridges the exact cause of the fire may not be known but because it originated near the highway with no electrical or lightning sources present, it could likely have been a cigarette tossed from a vehicle.
No occupied structures were burned by the fire, according to Bridges, but he said several homes had been in danger. He said aggressive structure protection saved those homes.
Bridges credited good fire lines being cut by road graders from Roosevelt, Curry and Bailey counties, along with attacks by pumper trucks that gave firefighters the upper hand.
The fire was declared contained around 6 p.m. after it had burned nearly three miles northeast of where it crossed U.S. 70 just west of its intersection with N.M. 202 (Cacahuate Road).
Some resources were being released by 6 p.m. while other firefighters were expected to be on the scene into the night putting out hotspots.
More than a dozen agencies assisted in the effort, providing more than 20 pieces of equipment to fight the fire. Units from fire departments in Portales, Clovis, Cannon, Texico, Muleshoe, Dora, Causey, Elida, Floyd, Arch and Milnesand responded along with Roosevelt and Curry County Sheriff’s deputies and Clovis and Portales police. Western Dairy Transport also provided three tanker trucks.
Clovis Fire Department Chief Ray Westerman said in addition to the winds, dryness was a contributor to the large, fast-moving blaze.
“Most things are drying out, fall is in the air — on a windy day like today where everything is blowing pretty good, it moves so fast,” he said. “When it’s windy, it’s the worst possible conditions for (fire).”
Bridges said Wednesday’s fire was a little less acreage than the 2005 fire that burned near Floyd, but it was every bit as dangerous.
That fire burned over 30,000 acres and destroyed two homes.
Bridges said the terrain — sandhills and native grasses — was similar to the Floyd fire and the wind was blowing as hard Wednesday as it had been in 2005.
“We learned from our previous events like that,” Bridges said. “Now we tend to get everyone jumping and coming pretty quick.”
Bridges said firefighters have known with good moisture early in the summer the grass fuel load had increased tremendously and the potential for serious fires was great in a dry season.
“I think this is possibly the start of a bad fire season,” Bridges said. “Hopefully it won’t happen again, but there’s a high potential for it.”