CIMARRON — Duane Shell stood outside his house Friday, the streets of Cimarron thick with yellow smoke from a wildfire burning not far past the baseball field and small airport. Except for Shell and about 15 stragglers who didn’t heed the mandatory evacuation order, the town was mostly empty by midday.
But he was ready if the winds turned.
“I know which way to run,” he said.
Most people had left. Cimarron, a town of about 1,100 people in northeastern New Mexico, nestled along the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was placed under a mandatory evacuation order earlier Friday as the nearby Ute Park Fire quickly spread to thousands of acres. The tiny community of Ute Park also was evacuated.
Households with children, senior citizens and pets were urged to evacuate, in particular, as air quality worsened.
The Ute Park Fire, which ignited Thursday, had scorched more than 27,000 acres by Saturday morning and remained uncontained, State Forestry Division officials reported in a news release. The fast-moving fire had burned 14 unoccupied structures at the Boy Scouts of America’s Philmont Scout Ranch, State Forestry officials said, and was threatening nearly 300 buildings in the area, including homes.
Still, Cimarron Village Councilor Matthew Gonzales posted a Facebook video Friday morning, saying, “No need to panic. We are not in imminent danger.”
The Cimarron police chief and his team, along with emergency managers, other law enforcement and a handful of volunteers, went door to door Friday to update residents on the fire burning not far from the edge of town.
Officers tied yellow tape on the fences outside homes of those who wanted to stay. One family left a sign taped to their door: “We are gone.”
Those fleeing Cimarron and Ute Park found their way to friends or family. Others went to Red Cross emergency shelters in Springer and Eagle Nest. By 5 p.m., 20 or so people had made their way to the Raton Convention Center, where volunteers had set up 400 cots, filled the freezer and kitchen with food, and put out games and coloring books for kids.
“People show up when you put the word out [for help]. It’s what small towns rely on,” said Scott Berry, Raton’s city manager.
The Santa Fe-based Food Depot, a regional food bank that serves nine counties in Northern New Mexico, announced i Friday that it had sent an emergency supply of food and water to the Raton center, enough goods to provide more than 7,000 meals. The shipment included pet food, a news release said.
The fire, its cause still unknown, was reported around 2 p.m. Thursday on private land in Ute Park and on the Philmont Scout Ranch. Land managers have spent the last three weeks tightening fire restrictions in hopes of preventing just such a blaze. Nearby Carson National Forest had already banned campfires. Santa Fe National Forest closed completely Friday after campers ignored a similar campfire ban and lit up at least 84 over the Memorial Day weekend.
Officials were patrolling Santa Fe National Forest on Friday, informing people that public access to the 1.6 million acres of national forest land was prohibited for public safety because of extreme fire danger.
A day after the Ute Park Fire ignited, driven by wind and heat, the fire had burned through 16,354 acres — despite the efforts of volunteer and state firefighters, and support from aircraft dropping retardant. By Friday evening, nearly 450 fire personnel were working to contain the blaze, including members of a Type 1 Incident Management Team that took over coordination efforts around 8 p.m.
The fire prompted the closure of several roadways and public lands. N.M. 64 between Eagle Nest Lake and Cimarron was closed Friday, along with N.M. 204 at Cimarron, State Forestry officials said. N.M. 21, which connects Cimarron to the Philmont Scout Ranch and the city of Springer, was closed, as well as N.M. 58, which runs from Cimarron to Springer.
According to the fire information website, Cimarron Canyon State Park was closed. Eagle Nest lake State Park remained open, but the lake was closed so helicopters could draw water to fight the fire.
A news release issued Friday afternoon from Carson National Forest said the east side of the Valle Vidal in Colfax County had closed because of the fire.
As most people in Cimarron gathered their belongings and left their homes under the mandatory evacuation order, village officials and staff continued a marathon session of answering questions and helping residents from their base at the village office.
Village Councilor Laura Gonzales said she and the village administrator had been at the office since 5 p.m. Thursday night as the Ute Park Fire grew from 150 acres to several thousand. Gonzales, going on no sleep by Friday afternoon, was posting fire updates on a Facebook fire information page and handling calls from people as far away as California and Montana, who were calling to check on family.
Gonzales also put out a request on the Facebook page, Cimarron New Mexico Info, for food to help feed firefighters and other volunteers. Soon she had plenty, as people dropped off what they had.
“There has been a generous outpouring from all around,” she told the Taos News in a message at 8:30 p.m. Friday “People are amazing. We are truly blessed.”
By then, she was running on less than fumes. “My goal is to see this through for my family and my town,” she said.
Staff from the Philmont Scout Ranch, who had evacuated Thursday, were camped out in rows of tents at the Colfax County Fairgrounds.
Some area hotels and the National Rifle Association’s Whittington Center, south of Raton, also offered to host evacuees free of charge. Other places opened up to house livestock and pets.
The fire affected other towns in the Enchanted Circle and portions of Taos by intermittently impeding internet and cellular service for more than a day. The fire damaged a main fiber-optic cable through Ute Park, and Kit Carson Telecom crews struggled Friday to get lines up and data moving smoothly.
By 8:30 p.m., Kit Carson Telecom manager Andrew Gonzales said he felt confident the redundant lines were working well for internet, “but we are being throttled across the network because utilization [by customers] is off the charts.”
Gonzales said crews were trying to set up a COW system — or cell on wheels — at the Eagle Nest School District for emergency responders who have had trouble calling their headquarters and teams.
“Our … primary goal is not for Netflix but to keep and protect individuals and the first responders safe, so we are trying every solution possible to ensure we restore some communications,” he said.
Spencer Hamons, an information technology professional in Angel Fire who relies on the internet and cell service for his business, said the outages had been frustrating. He was without both services all day Friday.
“I have a backup satellite link that I am using right now, but it is really slow,” he said in an email. “Cell is still down as well. I just let some of the firefighters use my [satellite] phone because they couldn’t get calls out to their headquarters.”
Information from the Santa Fe New Mexican was used in this report.