Year in Review: Cannon changes hands

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Two of the biggest stories affecting Roosevelt County in the last quarter of 2007 happened outside its borders.

October began with the change of command ceremonies at Cannon Air Force Base, officially marking the base’s change from the 27th Fighter Wing’s ownership to that of the new 27th Special Operations Wing. Dignitaries from around the state and nation, including U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici R-N.M., crowded into a hangar to mark the change. Domenici returned home to Albuquerque following the ceremonies and a few days later announced he would retire at the end of his sixth term.

The ceremony at Cannon capped a sometimes worrisome transition for eastern New Mexico that began more than two years earlier when the base was placed on the Air Force’s Base Realignment and Closure list. Residents from throughout the area banded together to fight closure of the base. The base was designated for closure, but the Air Force by the BRAC commission to explore possible new missions for Cannon. In June of 2006 it was announced that the Air Force would seek to bring a new Special Operations mission to the High Plains.

“We (AFSOC) are going to transform Cannon into a base that is unsurpassed in training special operations airmen ready to deploy whenever and wherever required,” 27th SOW Commander Tim Leahy said during the ceremony, “and we are going to make New Mexico a better place to work and raise our children.”
The ceremony was complete with a variety of new aircraft that will be used by Special Operations forces, including C-130s, an Osprey and other aircraft.

The first SOW forces began trickling into the base in November and in December the last remaining squadron of the 27th Fighter Wing made their last flight over the Staked Plains and was decommissioned with the jets and their crews dispersed to other bases.

Domenici’s announcement came as a jolt to the entire state, after New Mexico’s longest-serving senator had begun campaigning for re-election earlier in the fall. He told the state from an Albuquerque school yard where he grew up, that a degenerative and incurable brain disease had forced him to make the hard decision to leave his service in Washington.

“The progress of this disease is apparently erratic and unpredictable. It may well be that seven years from now, it will be stable,” Domenici said. “On the other hand, it may also be that the disease will have incapacitated me. That’s possible.”

“I am not willing to take a chance that the people who have so honored me with their trust for 40 years might not be served as well as they deserve in the United States Senate.”

Domenici’s announcement set off a scramble for candidates for his seat and candidates who wanted the congressional seats that those contenders held. By the end of the year the field had narrowed to Rep. Heather Wilson of Albuquerque, Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs on the Republican side and Rep. Tom Udall of Santa Fe as the sole Democrat.

Pearce and Wilson made stops in Portales soon after they announced. Both said they made the stops in order to listen to the constituency and find out the issues that were important to them.

Udall, the last of the three to announce, stopped in Clovis in late November.

Other stories that grabbed attention in the last part of 2007 were a state championship in volleyball for the Portales Lady Rams and a wildfire that swept across the northern part of the county, bringing to mind a devastating grass fire in 2005 near Floyd.

The Lady Rams won their fifth championship in eight years in November under coach Ruth Chavez. They defeated rival Las Vegas Robertson in four games to take home the trophy.

The win was special for six PHS seniors, including Bethany Self.

“I was tired of second place,” Self said. “Tired of second — ready to go home with the blue trophy. I’ve been waiting for this and dreaming about it my whole life.”

A wildfire that broke out along N.M. 267 (Air Base Road) and ran for seven miles, jumping U.S. 70 not far from Greyhound Stadium burned about 3,000.

Firefighters from more than a dozen agencies responded to the fire, which was fanned by high winds. No major structures were lost.

“There were some that were threatened, but our guys and gals did a great job of protecting them,” Portales Fire Department Battalion Chief Gary Nuckols said.

The blaze was believed to be human caused, possibly a cigarette thrown from a vehicle, said state fire officials.