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Firefighters Attack N.M. Hot Spots

March 26, 2002

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ALTO, N.M. (AP) _ Bare chimneys stood amid burned rubble and twisted metal in an affluent mountain subdivision where a fast-moving wildfire had destroyed 28 homes.

As firefighters mopped up hot spots Monday, some of the hundreds of people who fled at the height of the fire emergency Saturday began returning to see if their homes had survived.

The blaze in the mountains of southern New Mexico had slowed significantly and was 60 percent contained, said Terri Wildermuth, state Forestry Division spokeswoman.

``They’re expecting very little fire behavior today (Monday) because of lower winds, lower temperatures and higher humidity,″ she said.

No one had been injured.

Sandy Gilmore, a 46-year-old teacher, had already learned on Sunday that her house burned to the ground.

``I could see where my house should have been and I knew it wasn’t, but I tried to make myself believe it,″ Gilmore said. ``My biggest concern is, Where am I going to go now?″

She also worried about her missing dog, Poochie, a Yorkie mix, and all her ``family treasures.″

``I had a pair of pants that were made by my great-great-great grandmother. They picked the cotton and they spun it into thread and wove it into fabric. ... They were given to me to pass on to my oldest son. I’ve been saving them and I know they went.″

Gov. Gary Johnson said the blaze started Saturday when a resident dumped fireplace ash in the back yard, mistakenly thinking the ashes were cold.

Wind gusts of up to 50 mph had pushed the flames, but the wind died down Sunday.

A barn mistaken for a 29th home also burned, firefighters said. Another home burned in a separate 10,860-acre fire on the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation, firefighters said. The area was declared a state disaster.

The Lincoln County assessor’s office pegged property damage from the fire at $5.2 million in assessed valuation. Actual value would be significantly more.

With conditions dry and snowpack light, New Mexico’s fire season is two to four weeks early.

In 2000, the state reported 2,466 fires covering 519,177 acres _ including the Cerro Grande Fire that burned 42,878 acres and more than 200 structures in Los Alamos. Last year, 1,649 fires burned 38,890 acres.

From Jan. 1 through March 20 this year, 61 fires burned 2,279 acres.

Nick Orciuoli, 46, said he fled flames during the 8,650-acre Cree Fire in 2000 but the urgency was greater this weekend.

``In the Cree Fire, we evacuated as a precaution. This one came on so fast, we evacuated to save lives,″ Orciuoli said.

``We left with the clothes on our backs and the pictures,″ said his wife, Lisa.


On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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