Fire-season flare-ups

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As the warmer-than-usual temperatures make it feel more like spring than winter, Valencia County fire officials are scrambling to try and contain what they are calling yet another early fire season.

Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales said for the past two years, fire season has begun in January — at least two months early.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: Jesse Carrillo, a firefighter with the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department, races to stop flames from engulfing a shed Monday. Firefighters were able to contain the three-acre grass fire north of Belen off N.M. 314 within an hour or so, but flames did destroy at least three sheds. Fire officials are still unsure what caused the fire.

On Sunday, firefighters were called out to Maestas Road, south of Belen, to a fire that involved heavy timber, including several cottonwood trees. Gonzales said he was in the area when he took the call at about 1:30 p.m.

“I was the first arriving unit on scene, and when I got there, there was a small, red pickup truck leaving with multiple juveniles with fishing poles,” Gonzales said. “They were also seen by neighbors, who said (the juveniles) had been in the area 30 to 45 minutes.”

Gonzales said while he isn’t sure that the juveniles he saw set the fire, he did say that he suspects that it was human caused.

The fire, which was less than an acre in size and only charred vacant land and timber near a ditchbank, was quickly contained by firefighters who were able to respond within five minutes of being called out. Gonzales said wind was a huge factor in the fire-fighting efforts as it was a Red Flag Warning day in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Five structures were threatened, but because of the rapid response, we were able to knock it down pretty quickly,” the county fire chief said.

County firefighters were out the next day fighting yet another blaze, this time north of Belen on N.M. 314. Gonzales said a homeowner was burning a pile of yard waste, and when the man left to get the mail from his mailbox, he returned to find that the fire had taken off into a nearby field.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Gonzales said of the 2.6-acre fire. “In the yard to the south, there were a lot of railroad ties, broken wooden pallets and a lot of yard waste. If the flames got to that, it could have really been bad.”

Gonzales said while it was a burn day in the county, the wind gusts fed the flames and carried them across the field.

While four structures were threatened, there was only minor heat damage to one shed. The fire chief said what saved the four sheds was that they were made of adobe.

Belen firefighters were on their way to help county crews Monday when they were called out to another fire on Fourth Street near Ross Avenue.

“We were battling the fire and the wind at the same time,” said Belen Fire Chief Manny Garcia. “The fire actually consumed two properties; on one property a vehicle and a two-car garage. Another shed was burned on the property north of that residence.

“Both structures are a total loss. It’s hard to determine the value because the homeowners didn’t know exactly what was inside the garage and shed.”

Garcia said he believes the fire was started by a man burning weeds, but because of the winds, the fire got away from him.

Nick Varela, who has been renting the house on Fourth Street with his wife, Melisha, and two young children, had just walked out to his backyard Monday to smoke a cigarette when he noticed the flames.

“It was in the very far back by the fence line and the trampoline was getting burned,” Varela said. “It spread to the grass and the shed had just barely started on fire on the bottom edge.”

Varela said he grabbed a hose and was trying to spray down the flames, but the hose wasn’t long enough. He then tried using a five-gallon bucket of water, but he said “the fire was getting too hot. It caught a big bush in the back and it just went up.”

As Varela was trying to put out the flames, Melisha drove up and saw her husband fighting the fire.

“I saw him running from the back, he was running with water,” she said. “Before I left, I saw the neighbor start a fire with leaves and stuff.”

Varela said he didn’t have anything in the garage, but his Chevy Silverado, parked next to the structure, went up in flames.

“I just bought a $1,200 transmission for it last night,” he said on Monday as he stood by while firefighters worked. “I didn’t have insurance (on the truck) because it wasn’t working.”

The couple had been renting the house for about three or four months. The owner, Kevin Peña, said he had a lot of past military uniforms he had in the garage belonging to himself and his father that he had planned to leave to his children.

Belen Police Detective Sgt. Joe Portio said 77-year-old Gilbert Rael will be cited for petty misdemeanor count of improper handling of fire and will summoned into court.

“He was very remorseful,” Portio said of Rael’s reaction to the fire. “His biggest thing was that he was so grateful that no one got hurt.”

Portio said his investigation is still ongoing and additional charges could be filed against other people who are suspected to be involved.

Both Gonzales and Garcia said even though the weather might be warm, residents who plan to burn need to be cautious.

“People need to make sure they clear the space around their homes — 30 feet of defensible space around structures,” Gonzales said. “They need to make sure they have a water source, adequate personnel to handle the fire, they should have hand tools and shovels, and please notify dispatch of the burn.”

Garcia also advises that homeowners take pictures of their belongings and have an inventory of what they own in case of a fire.

As of News-Bulletin deadline on Wednesday, county fire crews were on scene at two separate fires, one off Gabaldon Road near Belen and another near the Conejo Transfer Station.


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