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N.M. fire blamed on fireplace ashes

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Fireplace ashes dumped in a back yard sparked a grass and timber wildfire that burned at least 30 homes in an affluent neighborhood in the mountains of southern New Mexico, Gov. Gary Johnson said Sunday.

The governor declared a state disaster and warned that, with continuing high winds, the fire threat could worsen.

"The situation today is much worse than it was yesterday," Johnson said.

At least five fires were burning in the area Sunday. One fire spread from an Indian reservation and burned one home, and authorities were asking residents near the town of Hondo to evacuate as a precaution. Earlier, state police had said 200 people were told to leave.

No one has been injured in the fires, but strong wind gusts as high as 50 mph continued to spread the flames.

Officials in Alto had no estimate on the total losses, but said the cost would be in the millions. At least 150 homes were evacuated.

Near Hondo, some residents left as a precaution as a fire spread from the Mescalero Apache reservation across 10,860 acres, the state Office of Emergency Services said Sunday. The fire was 15 miles southwest of Hondo on Sunday. Strong wind prevented firefighters and aircraft from working on the blaze, firefighters said.

More than 200 firefighters were battling the flames near Alto with the help of air tankers and helicopters, but the winds made flying difficult, said Jerome MacDonald, chief for firefighting crews of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.