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Ute Park Fire erupts, grows to 16,500 acres

Map of Ute Fire Activity (National Interagency Fire Center)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

EAGLE NEST – Jim Smith got an urgent call from his wife a little before 3 p.m. Thursday. Smoke was starting to build about 100 yards from their Ute Park home, and a fire was spreading fast.

“Within 20 minutes, it had probably covered 25 acres, and after that the wind just took it and it just blossomed to the west,” Smith said. “Within an hour, the whole eastern part of Ute Park itself was involved in the fire.”

Fire officials said the blaze continued to spread quickly Friday, more than doubling in size over the course of the day to cover 16,500 acres east of Taos.

The fire burned 14 unoccupied, non-residential structures at the Philmont Scout Ranch, according to Wendy Mason, the Wildfire Prevention & Communications Coordinator for the state Forestry Division.

Almost 300 structures were considered still in danger.

When Smith, the manager of the Eagle Nest senior center, saw the fire first blow up Thursday, he got into his car and went home. By the time he got there, law enforcement was already evacuating homes.

“The county people let us in, told us to pick up our stuff and move out,” Smith said. “At that time, we moved out of the fire area, but just into the area west of the fire, and decided to wait there to see what was going to happen. And then about an hour after that they just evacuated all of Ute Park.” Smith said he was told by fire personnel the wildfire was caused by a dry lightning strike that hit a tree on Tuesday but kept smoldering until the fire erupted on Thursday.

He said he was also told that it might be two more days before he and his wife could return home, which he said was untouched by the flames. When the couple arrived back in Eagle Nest, the American Red Cross was already turning the senior center into a shelter for evacuees.

Cindy Carr, a second-grade teacher at Eagle Nest Elementary School, was in Ute Park Thursday for the school district’s end-of-year picnic. After the evacuations, she and others at the school district got to work. She was at the school Friday helping take in donations. The family of one of the district’s employees had to leave their home in Ute Park, she said.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going through with their family,” Carr said. “I don’t think we’ve had time to think about it yet. We’re just trying to do what we can do and be where we need to be when we need to be there.”

Cell service down

Cellphone service was down between Eagle Nest and Taos starting Thursday night and continuing into Friday.

Taos-based Kit Carson Internet said in a Facebook post Thursday night that it was experiencing outages due to the Ute Park Fire. The company put out another post Friday afternoon saying the fire had “caused damages to upstream mainline bandwidth providers” and that in an attempt to restore cellular communications, Kit Carson would “briefly” drop services to condition a new line over a redundant route.

Firefighters, who were being staged at Eagle Nest Elementary, were handling important business on a landline telephone in the school’s main office.

“It’s been difficult to, first of all, know where to go, know who’s where, and then to coordinate what efforts are being focused where,” Carr said. “Things are much less efficient because we have a lack of communication.”

Lucas Brooks, a Red Cross Disaster Program Specialist, said a family of three adults and four children who were on vacation had to stay at the Eagle Nest shelter Thursday night.

“They were out hiking and couldn’t even go back to their cabin,” Brooks said. “They didn’t have a change of clothes, they didn’t have ID or cash, so you can see the stress is taking its toll on them.”

In addition to the shelter, hotels and lodges in Eagle Nest and Red River are offering free rooms to evacuees.

“This community is very good about opening their doors to people when something happens,” Smith said. “It’s a community that cooperates and works together very well.”

No containment

The fire was still zero percent contained as of 9 p.m., according to the Ute Park Fire Info website.

Shawn Jeffrey, the Cimarron town clerk administrator, said the village had ordered mandatory evacuations around 9 a.m. and Mayor Leo Martinez has declared the town to be in a state of emergency. As of Friday night, officials said the fire no longer posed a threat to Ute Park, and the community went from being under mandatory evacuation to advisory evacuation.

Friday morning, Jeffrey said the fire was still about two miles north of Cimarron, a town of about 1,100 in Colfax County about 50 miles east of Taos. Evacuees were told to head to the Raton Convention Center if they didn’t have family to stay with. The New Mexico chapter of the American Red Cross was supporting the center by bringing in supplies.

Evacuees from Philmont Boy Scout Ranch, which is under a voluntary evacuation, were directed to head to the fairgrounds in Springer, Jeffrey said.

She said she and the other village officials would stay at the village hall until everyone left. Village officials posted updates on Facebook throughout Friday, and community members added messages asking for or offering help with animals, transportation and supplies.

In a Facebook live video, village Councilor Matthew Gonzales urged the community to leave but not to panic.

“That does not mean jump into your car and speed out of town as quickly as possible,” he said. “We’re not in imminent danger. We’re encouraging all members to start packing up their vehicles and heading out of town.”

Firefighters were working to suppress the fire with support from two very large air tankers (VLAT), six heavy air tankers, and four helicopters.

The National Weather Service Albuquerque sent out an Air Quality Alert Message around 10:30 a.m. Friday.

“The Ute Park Wildfire in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is producing significant amounts of dense smoke,” according to the alert. “At 10:00 a.m., Colfax County Emergency Management reported very poor or near zero visibility as a result of the smoke in the areas immediately downwind from the fire, including the community of Cimarron.”

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