High winds hamper fire-fighting efforts in wildland fire Saturday

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When Kris Hessinger noticed a fire at his neighbor’s property Saturday, he didn’t think it would turn into something that big.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: A wildland fire, started by a transformer that malfunctioned Saturday, charred nearly 11 acres of grass and a shed. Firefighters from several local fire departments fought the fire and contained it so it wouldn’t spread into the bosque.

But thanks to the high winds that day, it did.

Hessinger was doing some fence repairs when he saw the fire at the corner of his neighbor’s property at the end of Los Chapulinas and Gabaldon Road, at about 1:45 p.m., Saturday. He said he raced back into his house, grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran back outside. But by then, the flames had already taken off.

“When I got back outside, the flames were higher than me, and I’m 6-foot 4-inches tall,” Hessinger said. “It (the fire) spread really fast with the winds. I called 911 and the fire department got here really quick.”

Hessinger and his neighbors live close to the bosque and this wasn’t the first time he experienced a wildland fire near his home.

He said several years ago, the same field burned, with flames threatening his home and property.

Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales was the first on the scene Saturday and saw flames racing near homes and through the fields. He said the flames had already engulfed an outbuilding, a shed full of flammable liquid and paint.

The fire, which has been named the “Lucky 7 Fire,” was contained to just less than 11 acres. Gonzales said the fire was caused by a faulty transformer box, which had been seen sparking days prior to the fire.

Fire crews from Los Chavez, Belen, Jarales/Pueblitos, Rio Grande Estates, Tomé/Adelino, Manzano Vista and Valencia County were aided by the New Mexico Forestry Division and New Mexico Game and Fish.

Gonzales said while firefighters worked hard to contain the fire from spreading into the nearby bosque, the winds Saturday didn’t help their efforts.

“(The wind) was our biggest challenge,” the fire chief said. “We had constant 14-18 mph winds with gust up to 25 mph. There was a constant change in wind direction, shifting the fire in different directions. It would help at times, blowing the fire back into itself, but because it was changing, we had to be careful.”

Gonzales said the clear-water ditch, east of the properties, helped as a barrier from the fire spreading into the bosque. Some of the trees on the ditchbank did catch fire, but firefighters were on the other side making sure it didn’t spread further east to the heavily-fueled bosque.

“If the winds had shifted the fire further, it would have for sure been a catastrophic fire,” Gonzales said. “We probably would still be out there.”

There were no injures or loss of firefighter equipment, the fire chief said, and none of the four homes in the area were damaged. Gonzales said the owner of the shed that burned had abandoned it years ago and it didn’t belong to anyone who lived in the area.

“The owners of that shed are still unknown,” the fire chief said.

Gonzales said the fuel load in the area was minimal due to a structure fire about five years ago that got out of control and had burned the nearby fields.

“That’s what probably saved the homes,” Gonzales said of Saturday’s fire. “The residents had a good defensible space around their properties and they were out there with water hoses protecting their own homes. That helped us a lot.”

Gonzales said he advises that homeowners maintain a 30-foot defensible space around their properties, meaning clearing away debris, such as weeds and any other flammable material, away from homes and other buildings in case of a wildland fire.

“You never know which way the wind is going to blow and when a fire is going to start,” Gonzales said.

The fire was 50 percent contained on Saturday night, 75 percent contained Sunday and 85 percent contained Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, the fire was 100 percent contained.

An engine from New Mexico State Forestry was on scene until Monday to work on any hot spots. They were released from the scene Monday afternoon.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.