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Fire Threatens Historic N.M. Area

February 18, 2000

FORT SUMNER, N.M. (AP) _ A wildfire driven by 30 to 40 mph wind burned an estimated 40,000 acres, briefly threatening this historic community, which came within ``one hair’s breadth″ of having to be evacuated.

No injuries were reported.

The fire started Thursday afternoon 5 miles west of Fort Sumner. Fire companies from neighboring communities poured into the farming and ranching town of 1,500, best known as the place where Billy the Kid was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881.

At one point, flames flared up behind three houses on the town’s outskirts. Residents were placed on alert, and children were kept inside school buildings until evening because emergency vehicles racing to the fire made traveling dangerous.

``We were one hair’s breadth away from evacuating town,″ said Fort Sumner Village Clerk Kathy West. ``People in those houses said the fire went right up to their back yards and flames were two stories tall.″

Firefighters were able to save the ranch houses and a rodeo arena north of town by digging firebreaks. The only structure destroyed was an abandoned shed.

By late evening, Terri Wildermuth, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Forestry Division, was able to declare the town out of danger, but she said some fire crews would remain to mop up. ``One part of the fire went to the east and another part went to the north. Both missed Fort Sumner,″ she said.

The fire in some places was 3 1/2 miles wide and up to 22 miles long, Wildermuth said. Conditions in the area were dry and the wind fanned the flames.

The cause was under investigation. Donald Griego, assistant chief of fire management for the Forestry Division, said one possible cause was sparks from a passing train, but there are other possible causes being considered.

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