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Bats Flee Caves As Strong Winds Send Flames Across 20,000 Acres

May 21, 1990

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) _ Cave-perching bats fled flames roaring through 20,000 acres of brush in and around Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and thick smoke from the weeklong fire prompted health warnings, firefighters said.

Reduced winds today encouraged fire officials who planned a major aerial and ground assault to corral the blaze.

The park’s renowned cavern attraction was not considered threatened because the wildfire was burning eight miles away on the other side of a canyon, fire spokesman Jerry Trout said.

″Chances of it crossing Slaughter Canyon are slim,″ he said.

The blaze dubbed the ″Big Fire″ after it broke out near Big Canyon on May 13 was nearly contained last week but erupted anew partly because of winds reaching 40 mph, Trout said.

″Cottonwood Cave, one of the caves the Forest Service conducts tours through, was burned over yesterday. Damage was considered minimal,″ Trout said. ″We went into that cave after it was burned over. All of the bat population has left the cave. Also the cave swallow population has left the cave.″

The lack of bats and birds indicated the animals safely fled smoke clouds pushing inside, officials said.

New Cave, another tour venue, also was closed and may stay closed all week, he said.

People with respiratory problems were warned to stay away because of smoke, said Deryl Jevons, another fire spokesman. The western end of the 47,755-acre national park was closed.

An old unoccupied cabin was burned Sunday, but no other structures have been damaged and no injuries were reported.

Most of the acreage charred by the fire is in Lincoln National Forest, about 40 miles southwest of Carlsbad in the southeastern part of the state. Private land administered by the Bureau of Land Management also was hit.

The blaze burned in rugged terrain marked by deep canyons, desert shrub, pinon, oak, juniper and some ponderosa pine trees.

Firefighters nearly had the blaze contained Thursday because of light rain and cooler temperatures. But the Forest Service, which started sending crews home Friday, began calling them back that night.

″The ashes got to some dry brush and it flared up again,″ said Bob Valen, a fire information officer.

The blaze had cost $925,000 to fight by Sunday. About 700 people, aided by aircraft dropping fire retardant, battled the flames, he said.

The fire was believed to be man-caused because people were in the area when it started, and it wasn’t caused by lightning, Trout said.

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