By Tony Parra
Dozens of Roosevelt County residents were evacuated from their homes on Wednesday as a grass fire swept across the Melrose Bombing Range then south to Floyd, destroying an estimated 35,000 acres, officials said.
There were no reports of major injuries, though at least one individual was treated for respiratory problems. Some structures were reported burned, but the extent of the damage was not immediately known.
About 100 people were evacuated from Floyd, which is 15 miles west of Portales, and spent much of Wednesday night in Portales churches.
All roads leading into Floyd were closed by law-enforcement officials most of the day, though they expected to open them back up sometime Wednesday night.
Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry said the fire started on the Melrose Bombing Range around 10 a.m., possibly earlier.
Capt. Andre Kok, with the Public Affairs Office at Cannon Air Force Base, said Wednesday night the cause of the fire had not been determined.
An Air Force mission team, in the region to assess Cannon’s infrastructure, was at the range and saw the fire at a distance, officials said.
Randy Harris, a Clovis banker and Cannon promoter, said he met the mission team at the range sometime after 9:30 a.m. He said he saw the fire before arriving at the range. Harris said the fire was much larger when the group left the range about 12:30 p.m. Harris said winds were so strong, “You couldn’t hardly stand up.”
Doug Karas, an Air Force spokesman, said the Air Force team did “visual observation and photography” by helicopter at the range on Wednesday morning.
Kok said bombing range fires are not uncommon, though they are usually contained immediately. He said a fire station is located on the range and firefighters are on duty anytime the range is being used for training.
“When we use the range for training … they drop small training bombs and all they have is basically a shotgun charge,” Kok said. “The force of it (hitting the ground) creates a light puff of smoke. … There is a small spark, but no explosion per se.”
Kok said he believes the range was being used for training on Wednesday morning, but he did not know any details and he did not know if a training bomb started the blaze.
Kok said there were no demonstrations held for the Air Force mission team and he had no reason to believe the fire was related to the team’s visit.
Berry said much of the fire west of Floyd was under control by 6 p.m., though firefighters continued to work hot spots. Fire along State Highway 480 continued to burn late Wednesday, though no structures were in immediate danger.
Wind speeds in the area gusted as high as 41 mph, according to Cannon meteorologists. The base saw 28-mph sustained winds on Wednesday.
Berry said 14 different fire departments and more than 200 firefighters responded to the blaze, including firefighters from as far away as Roswell and Las Vegas. Representatives from the state forestry department were also involved in fighting the fires, Berry said.
Dave Terry, a Floyd land owner, said one of the structures burned was an old horse stable.
Weldon Kube, a driver/operator with the Clovis fire department, said the city sent six firefighters and three trucks to assist with the fire in addition to four commanders to help with patrol.
Kube said they were dispatched to the bombing range at 11:04 a.m. and were still on the scene about 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Kok said there were 30 firefighters and five fire trucks from Cannon Air Force Base dispatched to stop the fire.