Dry winds spark fire season for High Plains

Darrell Todd Maurina

Many New Mexicans watched in shock this summer as the scenic Rio Grande bosque passing through downtown Albuquerque caught fire and threatened the city. Similar fires in California didn’t just threaten but actually destroyed many structures and killed some residents.
Local fire officials warn that it’s now the season for fires on the high plains, and while Portales and Clovis won’t face that kind of destruction, an out-of-control grass fire could destroy thousands of acres and threaten lives.
“What we’re starting to see is a grass fire a day, small grass fires which are leading us to believe we need to remind our residents of Curry County that grass fires can be a tragic situation, not only to your cattle and your livelihood but also to your home or yourself,” Clovis Fire Department Capt. Karen Burns said.
Wide-open space in Roosevelt and Curry counties, blustery winds and an arid atmosphere make grass fires somewhat common. However, lack of trees and heavy vegetation halt area fires from burning and spreading as quick as the bosque.
“The bosques and some of the areas like that have the mountainous tree brush,” Burns said. “We have open plains, which allows for the winds to come across the plains and at any given point shift. When they shift, they could move to a place where we have personnel, equipment or vehicles. It leaves wide open the winds dictating where the fire will go and what acceleration it will have.”
While most grass fires start small and don’t go far due to quick responses by firefighters with modern equipment, the massive range fires of the Old West aren’t impossible. Just a few years ago, a fire near Fort Sumner got out of control and burned almost all the way to Santa Rosa before firefighters extinguished it, Burns said.
“There were close to a thousand acres burned,” Burns said. “They were talking about evacuation of Fort Sumner and of the hospital which was still open in Fort Sumner at that time because of all the smoke coming into town.”
Burns said the major problem in Curry County is inattentive motorists who throw smoking material out their car windows, combined with dry weather and tinder-dry grass by the roadsides.
“There is a lot of CRP land in this area; that is land (farmers) are paid for but do not work,” Burns said. “As that land sits there, if we get even a little bit of rain, it creates some growth and it gets thicker and thicker so when the fire does start it burns hotter (and) produces more smoke. We want to make sure that fire doesn’t get into somebody’s home or their livelihood such as their cattle or their wheat.”
Roosevelt County hasn’t faced as many fire problems as Curry County. Battalion Chief Jesse Mowrer of the Portales Fire Department said he’s seen only about 10 to 12 grass fires since July.
“We just don’t have that type of roadway system,” Mowrer said. “Most of our roads are small rural roads where people know what they’re doing and we don’t have that problem, and the only really major highway is US-70 and the state highway department keeps that mowed pretty well to keep the fuel load down.”
However, Mowrer said Roosevelt County residents still need to use caution.
“I think in our community the biggest solution to the problem would be to be sure if you have burn barrels you have really good screens on them and never leave them unattended, and always control your smoking material,” Mowrer said.