Downed Power Line Sparks N.M. Wildfire

May 31--A fire broke out in Pecos Canyon on Thursday afternoon and exploded to quickly burn through more than 500 acres about 10 miles north of the village of Pecos, threatening structures, closing a highway and forcing evacuations.

The fire, started by a downed power line amid heavy winds, was shooting huge flames and giant plumes of smoke into the air just about a mile west of Tres Lagunas, an upscale community of cabins and vacation homes along N.M. 63 and the Pecos River.

There were reports of people being sheltered in a day-use area along the river and efforts to move a group of teens who had been staying at the Panchuela Campground, well north of the fire zone.

In the afternoon, evacuations were from areas north of the fire, but around 8 p.m. authorities said people from south of the fire zone were also being told to leave. N.M. 63, the only highway through the canyon, was closed at the fire scene.

On the north side of the fire, evacuees were being taken to or told to go north to Cowles Pond, at the north end of the canyon and several miles from the fire, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman said. It was unclear if any provision had been made to house evacuees. The canyon is dotted with cabins, vacation homes, and recreational ranches and camps.

A combination of small planes, helicopters and hand crews were sent to attack the blaze, which started around 3 p.m. Iris Estes, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest, said the wind kept the aircraft grounded Thursday but large air tankers were staging in Santa Fe and Albuquerque to work on the fire today.

"The challenges are the wind, dry conditions and steep terrain," Estes said. About 150 firefighters were being mobilized to fight the fire Thursday night.

In the afternoon, firefighters on the scene said the blaze ignited along N.M. 63 when a power line fell and that was confirmed Thursday night by the Forest Service.

The high winds continued into the evening. At 5 p.m., the state Forestry Division pegged the wind speed at 24 mph and gusts that high were still being reported at 9 p.m.

There was no containment of the fire Thursday night as it burned toward the north, but authorities said there were no reports of any structures being burned.

"Hopefully tomorrow, the winds won't be as bad and we can get a handle on it," Estes said.

Bob Ingersoll, a captain with Pecos Canyon Fire and Rescue, said near the scene Thursday afternoon that the fire started by the road after a power line got caught in trees. He said the blaze raced up the canyon. "The wind shifted and we had to get out of there," he said.

His son, Josh Ingersoll, said the fire was probably only about 3 acres when firefighters first arrived. But when high winds hit the blaze, it jumped the road and started crowning in the treetops of ponderosa pine.

"It was just so windy, it got out of control," he said, forcing crews to retreat. "A little later we would have been toast," he added. "It sounded like a locomotive," said Ronnie Armijo, another Pecos firefighter. Tracy Bennett, ranch manager of the nearby Hidden Valley Ranch, which has time-share units and vacation homes, said the power went out about 3:15 p.m. He said he called the local electrical coop, which told him about the fire. Bennett said he looked outside, saw the smoke and thought, "It's not a little one."

Bennett advised some guests they should spend the night in town.

The fire is the first largescale blaze of 2013 for northern New Mexico as much of the state faces another year of drought and poor fire conditions.

Copyright 2013 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.