ActivePaper Archive ‘We were lucky today’ - Hobbs News Sun, 2/17/2019

‘We were lucky today’

No homes destroyed or injuries in frightful grass fire

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TODD BAILEY/NEWS-SUN

Firefighters drench some hot spots near Alabama following a large grass fire northwest of Hobbs. More than 270 acres caught fire, but there were no liveable structures damaged and no animals or people injured.

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PHOTOS BY TODD BAILEY/NEWS-SUN

The possible starting point of a large grass fire in northwest Hobbs is this area about 200 yards south of the intersection of Lovington Highway and Alabama Street. More than 270 acres caught fire, but there were no liveable structures damaged and no animals or people injured. The grass fire’s cause is still under investigation.

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With smoke throughout the air, a N.M. State Police officer blocks off west Alabama near Bensing Drive during a grass fire northwest of Hobbs.

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A firefighter puts out a hot spot Saturday near an RV of a neighbor living near Alabama following a large grass fire northwest of Hobbs.

No inhabited structures, animals or people were harmed in Saturday’s grass fire northwest of Hobbs.

What started about 200 yards south of the intersection of the Lovington Highway and Alabama Street turned into a 271-acre blaze that led to evacuations of more than 50 people from their homes.

The initial call was sent out at 2:07 p.m., as a fire near the intersection. Around that time prevailing winds were observed at more than 40 miles an hour. Ten minutes later, Lea County Sheriff deputies were instructed to go door to door to homes starting on Matt Drive, off of Alabama and throughout the area, asking residents to grab any valuable belongings, family members and pets and evacuate their homes.

“We had one abandoned barn that had some tires in it as the only structure to catch fire,” said Lea County Environmental Services Director Lorenzo Velasquez. “We were lucky today.”

Personnel from nine area fire departments (Hobbs, Lovington, Denver City and Seminole Fire Departments and the Maljamar, Monument, Knowles and Tatum volunteer fire departments) three law enforcement agencies (Hobbs Police, Lea County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police), the Lea County Road Department and Lea County Emergency Management all responded to the grass fire.

“I thought the attack on this fire went well,” said Hobbs Fire Captain Chris Henry, who was incident commander. “Obviously it took a little time to get the resources here. Once they got here we were lucky to keep it out of the residences in the Matt Drive area.”

Smoke engulfed the area along Alabama Street as Hobbs, state police and Lea County deputies only allowed residents to exit the danger area. Intersections near near Bensing and World Drive were blocked off to traffic on Alabama and Kansas, located a mile south.

The Emergency Operations Center at the Lea County Communication Authority was partially opened during the initial onset of the grass fire. The Hobbs Police Command in Control was later opened about a quarter mile west of the corner of Alabama and World. It was set up as a base of operations where firefighters could come for rest and to have fire trucks refueled with water brought in by water trucks.

About a mile due south, onlookers parked along Kansas west of Bensing and watched as fire crews battled the blaze — which had flames more than 15 feet in height — from more than a half a mile away.

Knowles Volunteer Fire Chief Michael Singleton led his group into the fire area. He said fire crews attacked the grass fire from the east in order to stop its move.

“It was a hard fire,” Singleton said. “It was heavily fueled because of the wind. That was my biggest issue when I got to the fire. The wind shifts caused some problems for us in terms of how to attack the fire. It’s not wise to put yourself in the path of a grass fire, but sometimes that’s the only way to battle it.”

While some residents loaded up their vehicles and left, some stayed to fight the fire around their homes.

Paul Litty was on his way home when he got a call about the fire and that his home on Alabama was threatened. Litty, with the help of some friends, did their best to create a fire wall to the south of his home. A stone’s throw away firefighters battled the blaze that never got any closer to Litty’s home.

“I was driving home when I got the call about the fire and I thought, 0‘Please don’t be my house. And thank the Lord there weren’t any houses,” Litty said. “All the firefighters did a great job of protecting our houses.”

Singleton said one of the reasons why no homes were destroyed was because many of the residents did a good job of protecting them.

“A lot of the houses had defensible space around them,” Singleton said. “That is one thing that I can commend some of the residents around the area. There was a home on the north side of Alabama where the fire jumped the street, but the resident had his grass short. They had defensible space surrounded. We would have lost a lot more homes today had there not been that.”

As firefighters continue to battle hot spots three hours after the initial call, the resident Singleton mentioned had three water sprinklers running over the burnt area of his lawn in an effort to take out any potential hot spots.

With winds more than 40 miles an hour, local agencies already knew it was a “Red Flag Day,” which is a warning from the U.S. Weather Service informing area firefighters and land management agencies that conditions were ideal for rapid spread fires.

The grass fire was the second local firefighters battled on Saturday. A few hours earlier, a half-mile strip of land about 30 feet wide caught fire along the Carlsbad Highway west of Arkansas Junction, also known as Hwy 483. That fire was already put out by the time the large grass fire was called in.

By 4:30 p.m., Henry had already begun releasing fire crews from the incident. After 5 p.m., only the Hobbs fire crews and those from Monument and Knowles were left to handle the hot spots. The road blocks were lifted and residents were told they could return to their homes. Henry said BLM officials would be on standby in case of any flares up.

With temperatures on the rise, the reality is more windy days like Saturday are in the near future. Which makes the possibility of another grass fire a frightful reality.

“It is going to happen again,” Henry said. “We don’t know when, but it’s just a matter of time. We have been saying it for years that something like this can happen. The idea of a grass fire going through an area of homes like this. It can happen again.”

Todd Bailey can be reached at editor@hobbsnews.com.