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Fire and then flood show prevention could have mitigated extent of damage (Part 1)

by Kathleen Sloan | October 16, 2020
10 min read
The Mims Lake fire at its frightening height. While causing minimal property damage and personal injury, the mid-June blaze required a brief evacuation of nearby residences, strained firefighting resources and ultimately burned 125 acres of scrubland. Photograph courtesy of the Sierra Soil & Water Conservation District

This summer Truth or Consequences experienced two major disasters within 40 days—a fire and then a flood—which tested and revealed the area’s level of hazard preparedness.

Our two-part series examines the circumstances surrounding these emergencies and assesses lessons learned, starting today with the Mims Lake fire that began June 17 and ended June 20. Next Thursday, Part 2 of the series will provide a similar evaluation of the July 26 rain event and the infrastructure malfunction that contributed to extensive flooding in Williamsburg and western T or C. 

A HERCULEAN FIREFIGHTING EFFORT

The Mims Lake fire happened over a four-day period, according to incident reports filed by Truth or Consequences Fire Chief Paul Tooley, who was the officer in charge. While causing minimal injury and property damage, the conflagration that darkened skies ominously in T or C and Elephant Butte (between which the lake sits off Rt. 179) significantly taxed volunteer firefighters in both towns.

Tooley answered some of the Sun’s questions about the fire’s causes and preventative measures that might have helped contain it, but not all, making the incident reports the primary documents of record. These were obtained by submitting an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the City of Truth or Consequences.  

Even the bare-bones incident reports give a sense of the exhaustion and labor it took to quell the fire. Judging by the times of arrival and departure, along with the repetitious list of firefighters who came out on three different calls, little sleep and herculean effort were required to completely extinguish the blaze.

In the reports, Tooley characterized the fire as a brush fire over open land, the chief fuel being salt cedar, Russian olive and various grasses.

brush
Dense vegetation fueled the fire, raising questions about whether stricter enforcement of municipal weed control codes could have been preventative or ameliorative. Photograph copyright © 2020 by Ron Fenn

The three incident reports, dated June 17, June 18 and June 20, state no human was involved in “ignition” of the fire and no buildings were involved. A property that was unspecified in the report, but valued at more than $200,000, suffered damage estimated at $7,000.

In the “narrative” section of the one report, Tooley said Assistant Fire Chief Ron Hoskins was injured and taken to the hospital after a branch fell on him.

The June 17 report states that the Truth or Consequences Fire Department was called at 7:49 p.m. Two fire trucks—“Lil Pauley” with 11 firefighters and “Rosie 1” with eight—arrived on the scene five minutes later. The address cited in the report was 3200 E. 3rd Ave, a four-bedroom residence sitting on a large parcel of scrubland, according to xome.com. The county assessor’s parcel maps record Me Encanta LLC as the property owner.

The Elephant Butte Fire Department provided “mutual aid,” sending three fire trucks and six firefighters. The fire was “contained” five hours later, around 1 a.m. on June 18, according to the report. But firefighters didn’t leave the scene until 3 a.m. or seven hours later, according to a Sept. 30 email from Tooley.

About 7 acres burned the first day, Tooley’s report states.

The next morning the firefighters were back at it again. This time the City of Truth or Consequences Fire Department sent “Engine 2” with 10 firefighters, “Lil Pauley” with six and “Rosie 1” with eight.

According to Tooley’s June 18 incident report, the three fire trucks arrived at 3200 E. 3rd Ave. at 10:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until 8:30 a.m. on June 20, nearly two days later.

Mutual aid was given by the Elephant Butte Fire Department—one fire truck and two firefighters. The Arrey Fire Department also aided, sending two fire trucks and five firefighters.

Tooley’s June 18 report states 140 acres burned, but no buildings were involved. “Contain wildland fire” and “establish fire lines” were the “actions” performed.

“Hotspots were tended to throughout the morning,” Tooley reported, but then “winds and temperatures increased.”

“Firefighters were unable to hold the thick brushfire at bay. At 15:50 [almost 4 p.m.] all units were paged as the brushfire exploded and ran,” Tooley wrote in the June 18 incident report.

At 10:15 a.m. on June 20, having left less than two hours earlier after fighting the fire 46 hours straight, 11 T or C firefighters returned to the scene on “Lil Pauley.

The Elephant Butte Fire Department again provided mutual aid—two fire trucks and five firefighters.

“Front end loader and brush trucks were used to remove brush and extinguish hot spots,” according to the incident report’s account of the last day’s actions. The firefighters left in the early afternoon.

INVESTIGATION OF FIRE’S CAUSES AND POSSIBLE PREVENTION NEVER COMPLETED

Tooley stated in his incident reports and told KOB-TV Channel 4 that the source of the fire was being investigated. The fire chief is required by Truth or Consequences City Code 5-77 to “make a prompt and thorough investigation of the cause of such fire,” and to put it in writing, as well as file it with the state.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office responded to the Sun’s public records request for a copy of the fire investigation report with the explanation that “no such documents exist.”

Tooley, asked if he had conducted an investigation, said in Sept. 10 email, “Local investigation, the son of Neal Brown admitted that they were firing an Estes [model] rocket that started the fire. He even admitted that he was the one that started the fire with a letter to the editor in the Sentinel.” Neal Brown owns the Me Encanta LLC property to which firefighters were first called. The P.O. box listed by the county assessor for the owner of Me Encanta is the same as that listed for Brown in online white pages.

brown property
3200 E. 3rd Ave. is a four-bedroom home set far back from the street on a large parcel of undeveloped land. The property is owned by Neal Brown, whose teenage son later acknowledged setting off the Estes model rocket that ignited the fire. Photograph by Google Earth

Asked why he didn’t include a human cause for the “ignition” of the fire, a determination required in the incident-report form, Tooley wrote in an Oct. 1 email, “At the time we did not know for sure. We have not completed supplemental reports to the original incident.”

Tooley didn’t provide an answer about whether setting off the Estes rocket was illegal. An examination of the fire-prevention section of T or C’s municipal code shows “aerial device,” as defined in the code, would include the model rocket ignited by Nathan Brown, Neal Brown’s high-school-age son.

However, the code is so vague, it is unclear if model rockets are also considered fireworks. City Code 5-103 states one must get a permit from the city clerk before setting off fireworks, but says nothing about aerial devices. The permit to be obtained includes documented permission from the fire chief “to display fireworks.” 

Tooley gave a verbal report on the fire at the Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting on June 24. Asserting the fire was “preventable,” he recommended the city clean up its own underbrush in the area, particularly around the nearby Cuchillo Negro bridge. He also recommended the city enforce its nuisance and weed codes as a means of making private landowners clear out underbrush.

City Manager Morris Madrid refuted Tooley’s contention, claiming at the commission meeting the city couldn’t have prevented the fire because it started on private land.  (See “City Manager Madrid refutes Fire Chief Tooley’s claim Mims Lake Fire was preventable,” June 26, 2020.)

The city code’s section on nuisances, however, states private property owners are responsible for removing “weeds” and provides a long list of plants categorized as such. The list includes salt cedar and Russian olive, two of the Mims Lake fire’s primary fuel sources.

MITIGATION AND RESTORATION

Fuel reduction to prevent fire is also included in the “Sierra County Hazard Mitigation Plan,” a prerequisite for government eligibility for state or federal funding relief after disasters.

In his dual capacity as Sierra County Emergency Manager, Tooley obtained a grant to update the plan two years ago. He formed a planning committee comprised of representatives from Sierra County, Truth or Consequences, Elephant Butte and Williamsburg. The three municipalities and the county adopted the plan by resolution in 2018.  

The plan’s wildfire section cites 2016 statistics provided by the New Mexico Forestry Division, which found 44 percent of wildfires are started by lightning and 56 percent by human activity.

“Significant danger to life and property occurs when human development meets and becomes intertwined with wildland’s vegetation,” the plan states, providing a fairly accurate description of the area around Mims Lake.

“The threat of wildfire increases in areas prone to intermittent drought or [that are] are generally arid or dry,” the plan states. It points out that most wildfires occur in Sierra County during March through August, a period marked by rising humidity and the “greening” of vegetation.

“The duration of a wildfire depends on the weather conditions, how dry it is, the availability of fuel to spread, and the ability of responders to contain and extinguish the fire,” the plan states. It was hot and dry the days of the Mims Lake fire.

“If fuel is available and the high wind speeds hit, a wildfire can spread over a large area in a very short time,” the plan states, describing other factors that exacerbated the Mims Lake fire. 

Despite adverse weather and wind conditions in Sierra County, wildfires have been rare here.

No “wildfire events” occurred in Truth or Consequences, Elephant Butte or Williamsburg from 2007 to 2017, according to the plan, which deemed the risk of wildfire “low” in the three municipalities. From 1970 to 2013, there were only two “large fires” in the “far western” part of the county, where the plan deems the wildfire risk to be “moderate.”

The plan outlines preventative actions to which the planners made commitments. All four governmental entities pledged to adopt “zoning restrictions in known hazard areas,” including “wildfire” areas. All four rated this measure a “high” priority.

The chiefs of every fire department in the county made it a “high” priority to reduce fuel loads in at-risk areas of their jurisdictions: Arrey, Caballo, Elephant Butte, Hillsboro, Las Palomas, Monticello, Poverty Creek, Spaceport America, Truth or Consequences and Winston-Chloride. Sierra County was the only governmental entity to commit to reducing fuel loads, although by ranking this measure as a “medium” priority, the county indicated be undertaken only if funding were available.

In the aftermath of the fire, Travis Day, the natural resource director of the Sierra Soil & Water Conservation District, who is also a Sierra County Commissioner, reached out to the four property owners affected by the fire to discuss restoration efforts to prevent future wildfires, re-establish native vegetation and improve the area’s aesthetics.

pond edge
Sierra Soil & Water Conservation District will restore portions of the burn scar by removing invasive species such as salt cedar and planting native vegetation. Photograph copyright © 2020 by Ron Fenn

The conservation district had received $145,000 from the Bureau of Land Manager in 2017 for the control of invasive and noxious weeds over a five-year period. Day applied for and received an additional $40,000 BLM grant to be used to remove invasive plants within the Mims Lake burn scar and replace them with non-invasive species.

Affected landowners Neal Brown, Turtleback Mountain Development and the City of Elephant Butte will participate in Phase 1 of the restoration effort, Day said. He hopes to include property owners Sherry Fletcher and Baxter Brown in subsequent phases.

Without the city’s commitment to aggressive enforcement of weed control and emulation of the Soil & Water District’s proactive restoration program, vacant lots and scrubland within the T or C city limits will remain tinder awaiting a match.

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Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com or 575-297-4146.
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1 Comment on “Fire and then flood show prevention could have mitigated extent of damage (Part 1)”

  1. Susan Abare-Gritter

    Years ago, under the leadership of Mary Jo Fahl, the Sierra Soil and Water Conservation District made an attempt to clear the salt cedar from around Mims Pond to prevent such a fire occurrence. Many residents of the area vocally protested because it would diminish their privacy. It was not done. There is much more salt cedar in that area today. Perhaps residents would be more amenable now?

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