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. 


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.

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 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.


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.


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.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
Share this:

Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

1 thought 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?

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top