Fire damage estimate climbs to 71,000 acres

Freedom New Mexico: Argen Duncan From left, Kenneth Workheiser of Transmatic Wrecker Service and Curry County Deputies Michael Brockett and Erica Romero man a roadblock on U.S. 70 near Southwest Cheese Company LLC during the grass fire April 17. Workheiser said he was there in case a fire truck needed help. Twenty-eight fire departments fought the fire with support from several law enforcement agencies and civilians.

Sharna Johnson and Argen Duncan

Approximately 71,000 acres burned in Curry and Roosevelt counties in a massive grass fire April 17 — more than four times initial estimates, making the fire the area’s largest in more than 30 years.

Melrose Fire Chief Kenny Jacobs said last week he drove the fire line to survey the damage and found it to be more than 4 miles wide in most places and covering 25 miles of distance.

What he observed by far trumped early estimates that placed the fire in the range of 17,000 acres, he said.

“This is the biggest fire that we’ve seen in 30 years that I’ve been around,” he said.

The fire started near Melrose around 11 a.m. after a tire on a vehicle blew out and sparks from the wheel set nearby grass ablaze.

Because the fire started in his department’s jurisdiction, Jacobs is the incident commander.

Burning throughout the day, the blaze made its way east to Clovis and finally burned out before hitting U.S. 70.

Even though the wind speed wasn’t as high as in the 2005 fire in Floyd that burned more than 26,000 acres, Jacobs said the fire moved faster.

“This one moved a lot faster because of the amount of fuel. It was a lot hotter,” he said. “It wasn’t something we were going to stop; we just had to maintain it as best we could.”

In the end, Jacobs said 28 fire departments responded from as far away as Capitan and Sudan, Texas, bringing nearly 200 firefighters to the scene.

Looking at the damage, with three burned houses and a barn and injuries or fatalities to 100 or more cattle, Jacobs said probably the biggest single impact is in the loss of grass, both for grazing and anchoring soil.

Signs on N.M. 467 warn of dust storms between Cannon Air Force Base and Portales.

“A lot of it is going to be the ground erosion. It’s nothing but sand out there,” he said. “It’s just going to blow. Texas is going to see a lot of New Mexico.”

Fences burned in the fire are another major impact.

“There were just miles and miles of fences. Fencing is very expensive; it is very expensive and labor-intensive to replace it,” he said.

One rancher had to put down several of his cattle, while Jacobs said he heard of another that took his herd to a packing plant.

The ranch Sharon and Tom Davis and their children run in Roosevelt and Curry counties lost 11,000 acres of grass. That’s nearly the entire acreage of the ranch, Sharon Davis said.

“There’s nothing,” she said. “It looks like Mars.”

The family also lost all of their fences, but firefighters saved their house and barn, and only two of about 280 cows and calves died.

“That’s the wonder of things, that they can survive a fire like that,” Sharon Davis said.

Cattle usually run to the fence in such a situation, she said. When she and others went to cut fences so the cattle could escape April 17, they found none and feared all of the animals had been killed.

However, Sharon Davis said some of the cattle had gone to water tanks, where there’s little grass this time of year, and others apparently found another way to survive.

Sharon Davis said her niece’s family, the Dodds, also lost all of their grass but are trying to carry on by bringing feed to their cattle. A Clovis businessman donated a truckload of feed to be divided among ranchers who had lost their grass.

“What a nice gesture,” she said.

However, the Davis family sold their entire herd.

Now, she said, they, “pray for rain, and then you start building fences.” There is no insurance available for grass and fences.

Chad Davis, Sharon’s son, said the soil on their land is blowing away.

“The longer it takes for it to rain for all that grass to get going again, the worse it’ll be,” he said of the state of the land.

If it rains soon and waters the surviving grass roots, Chad Davis said, the grass will take a year or two to return to a grazeable condition. Until then, ranchers have to make a living some other way.

Chad Davis said he knew of three large ranches, plus other land, that burned in Roosevelt and Curry counties.