The extreme drought in New Mexico has made for a worrisome fire season thus far. In addition to the relatively small wildfire burning east of U.S. Hill in Taos County, fires have broken out across Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado in the past week, with varying degrees of threats to people, communications infrastructure and the forest ecosystems. Here’s a rundown of the latest information on the fires in our part of the Southwest; Acrage and containment is current as of Wednesday (July 4) at 4:30 p.m. Please check taosnews.com to find updates.
Sardinas Canyon Fire, Taos County (18 miles from Taos)
Size: 2,307 acres
12 percent contained
Joe Scholz was looking over the cab of a small helicopter sitting at the grassy and relatively flat top of U.S. Hill Friday (June 29), waiting for a flight later that day with the incident commander of the Sardinas Canyon Fire. Along with a division chief and weather experts, they would do a daily reconnaissance mission to scout the latest fire behavior, movement and size.
The intelligence-gathering helicopter along with heavy-duty Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters outfitted to carry 2,600 gallons of water at a time are some of the most valuable tools during the weeklong effort to suppress this wildfire. The fire is burning in steep and rugged terrain in the Camino Real District of the Carson National Forest, a dangerous firefighting area where managers are reluctant to put ground forces. Since the fire was reported June 24, aircraft have slowed the growth of the fire.
Rather than being an unbroken block of flames, the Sardinas Canyon Fire is a patchwork, or “mosaic,” of different burn intensities; areas of the interior of the fire are largely unburned with only isolated heat spots.
Though the fire sent up a dramatic smoke plume over Taos last week and at times filled the valley with a hard-to-breathe haze, it has been a relatively easygoing fire. Unlike the Ute Park Fire, which had the potential to burn homes, businesses and infrastructure in Cimarron and Ute Park — both communities evacuated for at least a couple days — the Sardinas Canyon Fire has threatened no structures.
Firefighters did install a sprinkler system to protect the La Junta Summer Homes at the intersection of State Road 518 and Forest Road 76, but those homes are about 2 miles from the perimeter of the fire, according to public information officers. Two archeological sites are being monitored and protected.
Furthermore, the Ute Park Fire was easy for firefighters to get to, meaning they attacked it more head-on with ground crews. That’s not the case for the fire in Taos County.
Firefighters are clearing debris from forest roads and old logging roads to create a fire line to contain the blaze. They’re also using bulldozers in areas where there are no roads.
The wildfire is currently within containment lines and will be allowed to burn up to them. Until then, it is not contained.
About 170 people are involved with the fire. Most of the upper management charged with keeping the fire in check are from national forests in Northern New Mexico, though some of the firefighters, helicopter pilots and hand crews are from as far away as Arizona, Montana and Oregon. The fire department with the village of Angel Fire has also helped out on the fire.
The law enforcement branch of the U.S. Forest Service is investigating the cause of the fire, but have said it was human caused.
The Carson National Forest is closed to the public. Only the Jicarilla Ranger District remains open, but under fire restrictions.
Spring Fire, Costilla County, Colorado (about 35 miles north of NM border)
Size: 94,125 acres
5 percent contained
A far more worrisome wildfire is burning north of the New Mexico-Colorado state line.
The blaze started Wednesday (June 27) and has blown up, tearing through tens of thousands of acres of private, state and federal land in Costilla and Huefano counties. At least 104 homes have burned in Costilla County and potentially more in other counties, according to county and fire officials. The fire was more than 50,000 acres as of Monday (July 2) and had grown by nearly 30,000 acres as of Tuesday (July 3).
The fire is burning between Fort Garland and La Veta, primarily on private land, and evacuation centers are set up in Walsenburg and Fort Garland. A Type 2 incident management team (a level above the sort of team that’s handling the Sardinas fire) is in command of the blaze. La Veta Pass between Fort Garland and La Veta is closed to traffic.
Critical fire weather — hot temperatures, low relative humidity and erratic winds — have pushed the fire into new territory.
A Colorado man from Denmark has been arrested in connection to the fire and is facing arson charges. At least 700 firefighters are responding to the incident, now the largest in Colorado. Smoke from the Springs Fire has wafted south into Taos County, making for several smokey days.
Visit nciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5875 or Twitter @Springfire2018 for the latest information.
Morris Creek Fire, Colfax County (11 miles from Angel Fire)
Size: 1,563 acres
28 percent contained
The Morris Creek Fire was reported Friday (June 29) on private land around the Philmont Scout Ranch in Colfax County. The fire has now spread onto the scout ranch, where crews have constructed fireline around the western edge of Carson Meadows. The fire was estimated to be about 400 acres as of Sunday (July 1) and over 1,000 as of Monday (July 2). No structures are threatened, according to Wendy Mason, a public affairs officer with State Forestry. The Philmont fire crews initially responded, and a Type 2 incident management team is taking over control of suppression efforts today (July 3). “Resources from multiple agencies are fighting this fire on the ground with additional support from aircraft,” according to a recent update.
Emily Fire, Mora County (North of Las Vegas)
0 percent contained
This wildfire began Thursday (June 28) and as of Tuesday (July 3), the Gila Las Cruces Type 3 team had taken management of the fire. They are developing a plan to protect the Turkey Mountains Repeater Site, which houses five emergency communications towers as well as commercial facilities and major power transmission lines in the area. A total of 149 people are tackling the blaze, including five firefighting crews, one engine and two helicopters.
“An estimated 80-acre spot fire occurred as a result of the erratic high winds over the fire,” read a July 3 update. “Fire crews utilized air resources in their efforts to contain this spot fire…Burnout actions were used to improve firelines.”
Heron Fire, Río Arriba County (3 miles from Tierra Amarilla)
Size: 10 acres
100 percent contained
The Heron Fire started Thursday (June 28) afternoon in the Fort Heron Subdivision, where it was threatening about 30 structures. It was located off of State Road 95 and was estimated to be 10 acres. State Forestry and local firefighting crews continuing to mop up the fire and mitigate multiple hazard trees within the fire perimeter over the weekend. Approximately. It was completely contained as of Monday (July 2). The cause is under investigation.
Other New Mexico wildfires
San Antonio Fire (Valles Caldera National Preserve)
The lightning-caused fire grew to about 416 acres and was 75 percent contained as of Monday (July 1). There was no significant growth over the weekend. A local unit for the preserve is handling it. “It’s all burning internally, so there’s lots of trees and stumps smoldering,” said the preserve’s Kimberly DeVall.
Organ Fire (White Sands Missile Range, Doña Ana County)
The fire is estimated at 4,727 acres, including 194 acres of state land, and is 25 percent contained as of Saturday (June 30). The fire is burning on the White Sands Missile Range in Doña Ana County. It started June 24 off of State Road 70 near San Augustine Pass, 10 miles northeast of Las Cruces. It’s within reach of two archeological sites and the missile range.r
Blanco Fire (Kiowa National Grassland, Cibola National Forest)
The Blanco Fire has grown to 2,100 acres as of Monday (July 2). It is located approximately 5.5 miles west of Roy. It is roughly 75 percent contained. A Type 3 team, similar to the team handling the Sardinas Canyon Fire, is stationed on the Blanco Fire.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which communities were forced to evacuate for the Ute Park Fire, which only included Cimarron and Ute Park. It also erred in the location of the La Junta Summer Homes, which are near the intersection of State Road 518 and Forest Road 76.