RATON, N.M. (AP) – A wildfire burning along the New Mexico-Colorado border more than doubled in size in a matter of hours Monday as crews worked to protect evacuated homes and businesses, while the closure of about 20 miles of the main north-south highway through both states sent travelers hours out of their way.
Raton residents watched as trees on the hillsides just outside the northeastern New Mexico community burst into flames while smoke billowed into the air.
“It’s very close. We’re watching trees explode before our eyes. It’s horrendous,” said Barbara Riley, a schoolteacher and owner of the Heart’s Desire Bed and Breakfast in Raton.
The Track fire had grown to 6,000 acres by Monday afternoon, less than a day after it was first reported. It crossed into Colorado by evening, and officials were reporting zero containment.
The blaze started Sunday on the west side of Interstate 25 and jumped to the east side that afternoon. It moved north toward the New Mexico-Colorado state line, and also to the east and southeast toward Raton, Sugarite State Park and Bartlett Mesa.
Between 800 and 1,000 people were asked overnight to leave their homes northeast of Raton. Fire officials confirmed that two structures burned, but they couldn’t say whether they were homes, businesses or outbuildings.
I-25 between Raton and Trinidad, Colo., remained closed Monday because of the fire.
Of the plume of smoke rising from the hills, Raton Mayor Neil Segotta said: “It looks like your worst nightmare.”
In addition to homes and businesses threatened by the flames, Segotta said other concerns included the city’s water treatment plant and its watershed. Raton depends on the watershed to feed a series of lakes that it uses for drinking water supplies.
State forestry spokesman Dan Ware said the fire picked up considerably Monday since settling down overnight. He described it as “pretty crazy,” saying the wind was expected to gust through the afternoon.
Crews worked feverishly to build dozer lines to keep the flames out of the watershed. They were also worked on structure protection in the small subdivisions on the outskirts of town that had been evacuated.
Firefighters on the ground got help from the air as tankers dropped fire retardant west of Raton.
Segotta said there was chance the evacuation order could be expanded depending on the wind direction.
“This fire to the west, we’re keeping an eye on it. If the wind should change and shift the fire into a southerly direction, it could very easily encircle Raton from the west side,” he said.
The fire was burning mostly pinon and juniper in rugged terrain. The flames were most active west and north of Raton, Ware said.
Some firefighters had to be pulled back earlier Monday because of the uptick in fire activity, he said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved a grant to help New Mexico pay for up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting the fire.
A shelter for evacuees was set up at the Raton Convention Center, and Riley said residents have been busy trying to round up livestock and get them moved farther from the fire.
Riley’s historic bed and breakfast is in the heart of Raton. She said her place was full last night, along with all of the community’s hotels. She also said traffic from the interstate closure was spilling into town.
“It’s getting kind of crazy,” she said.
New Mexico officials on Monday used the Track fire and the northeast edge of the Wallow fire burning along the New Mexico-Arizona border to warn residents about fire danger across the state. Persistent dry and windy conditions have resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres being charred in the state so far this year. Most of the state is suffering from severe to extreme drought conditions.
Firefighters in northeastern New Mexico shouldn’t expect much help from Mother Nature, said Maria Torres, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. The forecast through the weekend calls for low humidity, little chance for rain, brisk winds and above normal temperatures.
“We have critical fire weather conditions,” she said.
In southeastern New Mexico, firefighters were battling a 500-acre blaze near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The park was closed Monday, and officials said it would reopen when conditions are safe.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, N.M. She can be reached at http://twitter.com/susanmbryanNM
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)