Hidden Lake blaze spurs investigations

Peggy Rucker posted this photo on the “Angel Fire Info Board- Better Than the Post Office” Facebook page at 6:14pm April 23 along with the note, “Brush fire on 120 at entrance to Hidden Lake – fire departments are on site – very quick response!” (Photo by Peggy Rucker)

A fire that blazed dangerously close to Hidden Lake Monday (April 23) has prompted a joint investigation among the Colfax County Sheriff’s Department, State Forestry, the Colfax County Fire Marshal and Moreno Valley firefighters.

Craig Sime, Assistant Chief with the Moreno Valley Fire District confirmed today the blaze was reported by area resident Peggy Rucker Monday evening. “She actually lives across the street from it.”

According to Sime, Rucker arrived home then told her husband she had forgotten to close the gate at their property. “When she did that, that is when she saw the fire. Thank goodness she did!”

Sime said 33 firefighters from the Moreno Valley Fire District, Angel Fire Fire Department and Eagle Nest Fire Departments had the blaze contained “within 5 hours.”

Two other departments helped assure the Moreno Valley was safe while crews worked, Sime said. “That night the [Rio Fernando Volunteer Fire Department in Taos Canyon] covered Angel Fire and Eagle Nest and Sierra Bonita [Guadalupita] covered the Moreno Valley. A lot of times if we have one going, we do this thing called move up and cover. If we don’t need [a neighboring fire department] to fight a fire they’ll move an engine and crew closer to make sure we’re covered.”

Sime said the fire came dangerously close to Hidden Lake. “This was really scary because it was old slash piles that had been sitting there for 10 years or so. They were really dry and burned really hot. It was running toward the Hidden Lake subdivision. There was one structure that threatened [the Hidden Lake caretakers’ home at the bottom of the subdivision]. Their house was a couple of hundred yards away from the fire and the fire was moving toward it. I think as the crow flies, it would would be a couple of hundred yards away from where the fire stopped.”

Although the fire is considered contained, Sime said, “State Forestry is monitoring the site.”

A day after the fire, the following appeared on several Facebook pages: “The Colfax County Fire Marshall has requested that we provide ‘Eyes Out There.’…. It appears that someone is setting fires mostly from 4 to 6 p.m. in the afternoon, close to the road…. If you have concerns that you wish to discuss with the Fire Marshall, please contact Larry Osborn at 575 445 8931. (See more of the post below.)”

Sime confirmed he and others have concerns about the Hidden Lake and other fires. “I don’t know the exact count, but I know there’s been several… and it’s pretty obvious that they’re not natural.”

Colfax County Fire Marshal Larry Osborn told The Chronicle, “When we can find no natural causes for them, until we can prove definitely that is was arson we call them ‘suspicious.’ They’re just happening a little too often. There’s just a lot of coincidences that pull out the red flags. I’ve talked to State Forestry and they have the same concern. We will pursue prosecution if this should turn out to be an intentionally set fire.”

Osborn added, “I will compliment the Moreno Valley Fire Department. They’ve been on top of it. This last one was in that slash pile.”

Christopher Romo, Cimarron District Fire Management Officer with the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which covers northeastern New Mexico, said, “[The fires are] being investigated and we’re patrolling the area. We’re asking the public to report if they see any suspicious vehicles out there. “We’ve had a total of 6.25 acres of Private/State Trust Land (6 acres of Private and .25 of an acre of NM State Trust Land) charred by three suspicious fires between mile makers 4 and 6 heading toward Ocate on Highway 120, including the one in the Hidden Lake area.”

Romo later emailed a map showing where the fires occurred and noted the Manueles started on April 5 at 5:30 p.m., the 120 West started on April 19 at 5 p.m. and the Hidden Lake started on April 23 at 5:45 p.m.

(Image provided by Chris Romo, NM State Forestry)

Osborn repeated, “What I do want is to get some eyes out there. Call my number here [575-445-8931 or 575-447-1639] or the Colfax County Sheriff’s Department [575-445-5561]. If you see smoke, call 911.

“This is just a very bad time for these things to occur.”

Fire danger high

Osborn, who has served as the county’s fire marshal 17 years, initiated a county-wide burn ban (with the exception of Philmont Scout Ranch) March 13 expanding an initial January ban in the Farley, Miami, French Tract, Vermejo Park and District 8 (Raton) Fire Districts.

“We’re in a time right now that we we’re in the one of the top three droughts in our history and the snowpack is 24-inches below normal,” Osborn told The Chronicle. “We’re hoping that the monsoons will come and give us some good moisture.”

Asked if what parts of the county are affected most, Osborn laughed. “I hate to say it but the entire county! On the east side where there’s ranching they’ve got grass out there two feet high and taller, on the west side you’ve got dry fine fuels and urban interface. Plus, right now it’s the season for high winds. In winds over 40mph, fires become very difficult to fight. On this side of the county, we’ve had fires that have started from welding and people pulling off the side of the road.

“We’re not in a good situation anywhere in the County right now. This is a time to be very vigilant. This is just a time to be very cautious, very concerned. It can just get really bad, really quick.”

Romo concurred. “It is critically high with areas of fire danger and fuel loading right now. We’re under some fire restrictions right now. These fires pose a big threat to multiple communities, not just one.”

Subscribe here for the NM State Forestry’s Wildfire Alert email

The National Weather Service office in Albuquerque also issues “Red Flag Warnings” whenever wind speeds and drought are high enough to pose a serious

Facebook ‘suspicious fires’ alert

“The Colfax County Fire Marshall has requested that we provide ‘Eyes Out There.’ It appears that someone is setting fires mostly from 4 to 6 pm in the afternoon, close to the road; therefore someone is probably using a vehicle on the road.…

  1. If you see a fire, the right thing to do is to call 911 and get emergency dispatch to scramble Fire and Police services.
  2. If you observe a suspicious vehicle or suspicious behavior, then time is of the essence and 911 is still your best resort.
  3. If there is a fire and you have observed a suspicious vehicle, please report all details to the Colfax County Sheriff’s department. 575-445-5525
  4. If you have concerns that you wish to discuss with the Fire Marshall, please contact Larry Osborn at 575 445 8931.
  5. We all take this very seriously — this is not the fire season to allow any type of malicious, human-caused fires.

Burn bans in effect

Colfax County currently has a “ban on open burning in the unincorporated areas of Colfax County.  No outside smoking is permitted except within a 3-foot diameter barren area.  The use of “exterior fireplaces, stoves, chimeneas, or charcoal briquette barbecues (except for gas-propane stoves and barbecues), and all open flames in the above designated areas of Colfax County are prohibited. Chainsaws will be permitted provided the manufacturers spark arrestor is in place. No burn permits will be issued at this time, and any current burn permits are hereby revoked.”

Similarly, Angel Fire Fire Chief John Murtagh issued the following ban in January: Outside fires and open burning will be prohibited.… Included in the ban are:

  • Above ground detonation;
  • agricultural burning;
  • bonfires;
  • burning of explosives;
  • campfires; ceremonial fires;
  • controlled burning;
  • outdoor cooking fires;
  • disease control;
  • outdoor heating fires;
  • outdoor welding and hot torch burning;
  • ignition of rocket motors;
  • open burning;
  • open flames;
  • timber and forest management;
  • research and development;
  • slash piles;
  • outdoor smoking; and
  • weed burning.

Charcoal broilers, barbecue grills, and coal-burning stoves used outside of private dwellings are classified as campfires and are prohibited. Exceptions include, cooking and heating devices that use kerosene, white gas or propane as fuel if used with adequate fire protection and defensible space; commercial grade smokers with adequate fire protection and defensible space; commercially constructed personal smokers with adequate fire protection and defensible space; smoking that is restricted to designated areas, within structures, or inside vehicles equipped with ashtrays.

Fire Chief Murtagh plans for fire season… and beyond