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Wildfires Race Through Southwest, Thousands Evacuated

May 6, 1996

EAGLE NEST, N.M. (AP) _ Firefighters struggled to control a blaze that raged through northern New Mexico early today after destroying several homes and forcing 2,000 people to evacuate. No injuries were reported.

The wildfire, believed to have been ignited by burning trash, erupted Sunday afternoon and had spread over 3,000 acres in the Carson National Forest by nightfall.

High winds forced firefighters to abandon a ground attack. Instead, 11 air tankers and one helicopter dropped water and fire retardant chemicals on the fire burning in tinder-dry cedar, juniper and ponderosa pine.

The flights were to resume today. Hundreds of firefighters also were working around the clock with bulldozers to create fire lines.

``It’s moving in so many different directions,″ said U.S. Forest Service dispatcher Demica Vigil. ``We’re not going to put anybody in danger.″

Temperatures were in the low 30s overnight, and the wind died down, but more wind was in the forecast for later today.

``We’re just waiting for daylight and waiting to see if the winds pick up and see where it goes from there,″ said Cherie Anders, a dispatcher with the Red River Marshal’s Office.

The Forest Service Sunday ordered 2,000 residents in the communities of Red River, La Lama and Questa to evacuate. The fire later engulfed a half dozen homes in La Lama, an unincorporated community of 75 about 20 miles north of Taos.

Some residents of Questa got the go-ahead to return home early today, but the fire was still a threat in other areas.

``We left all our belongings in the house and hope they’ll be there when we get back,″ said Red River resident James Carter.

Judy Brunson, Red River municipal clerk, said government records were taken out in a 5-by-8-foot trailer. ``We have our computers, we have our ordinances, resolutions and utility billings in here,″ she said. ``We can do business here right now if we have to.″

Early today, the fire was four to five miles southwest of Red River, a tourist town of about 300, Anders said.

Carter said he and his wife, Nora, learned of the fire as they were returning home from a day trip. Police stopped them on the highway into town and told them they had 30 minutes to drive home, get a change of clothes and get out.

The fire moved north, to within a quarter of a mile of Questa, before a fire line kept it away from the village of 1,700 people.

``It was scary there for a while, it was fortunate the wind died down when it did,″ said state Sen. Carlos Cisneros of Questa, who helped with evacuation efforts.

Officials said winds of up to 20 mph were forecast for this afternoon, but that they hoped calm conditions in the morning would allow them to make some headway with the blaze.

``It depends on the fire _ we don’t know what the behavior is going to be,″ said Forest Service spokesman Gary Schiff.

Elsewhere in the state, Bandelier National Monument was reopened for tourists after crews contained the 16,680-acre fire that came within two miles of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and threatened ancient Indian ruins. While the fire was fully surrounded, crews still battled the blaze within the containment lines.

In Arizona, about 400 firefighters worked to contain a forest fire that briefly forced the evacuation of a dozen homes outside Flagstaff.

The blaze, which began Saturday, was 30 percent contained Sunday by fire lines, said Raquel Romero, a spokeswoman for Coconino National Forest. She said no homes were damaged but that a handful of fences and yards were burned.

Authorities said the 320-acre fire was started by two youngsters playing with matches. Forest Service officials said criminal and civil charges could be filed against the two, whose identities were not immediately released.

In east-central Arizona, meanwhile, a fire that burned over 61,000 acres of forest and desert brush in the Tonto National Forest was contained late Saturday.

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