Los Chavez

“The conditions are so dry, anything will set it off.”

Valencia County Fire Marshall John Cherry is talking about the growing number of fires that are sweeping across the entire county.

This week, 21 blazes kept volunteer firefighters from every department busy. On Wednesday, a total of 15 of those fires saw 12 to 14 trucks pumping water on a near-constant basis.

Los Lunas and Belen both encountered numerous brush fires including blazes on Leslie Drive, NM 47, Los Chapulinos, Leslie Drive, Calle Medio and Maestas Road.

“We started in Veguita, where a field fire turned into a structure fire,” Cherry said. “We ended the day with four structure fires, two in Meadow Lake.”

Because of the extreme, dry conditions, Cherry urged residents to take extra precautions when it comes to controlled burns. “If the wind is 10 miles an hour, we’re not going to allow controlled burns,” he said.

“More than anything, we just want to emphasize for people to be careful.”

On Wednesday, another controlled burn on Riger Court turned into a disaster in Peralta.

The fire started in the yard and blew to the trailer, Cherry said.

Jerry Meyer began his day burning weeds behind his trailer. Later, he decided to drive to the store and get a part for his well.

“I thought I put it all out. The wind picked up so quickly. I tried to get ahold of 911 on my cell phone,” Meyer said. “I saw some smoke the minute I got back. I got the hose from next door.”

Flames first hit the back bedroom and left the home charred and unlivable. No one was inside, and the dog escaped just in time without being hurt.

Firefighters from fire departments in Peralta, Bosque Farms and El Cerro banded together to battle the blaze.

One firefighter on the scene said they can handle property damage, but not the loss of lives. “We’re just glad no one was inside … that no one was hurt,” he said.

Firefighter Sara Stanhope agreed. “We think of what we do as helping our fellow neighbors.”

Three generations of firefighters are out there in the field, Cherry said. “We don’t see anything but death and destruction. We’re used to it.”

Another fire at 105 Maestas Road in Belen got out of hand Thursday afternoon after a homeowner was burning weeds along his fence.

On Thursday morning, the winds were mild. The homeowner thought he had applied enough water to cool the embers, but, at 1:30 p.m., he looked out his window only to discover the winds had picked up and the embers had started a fire. He ran outside to put it out.

Employees of Sturgeon Electric were delivering old electrical poles to a resident along Maestas Road when they saw the flames. Mark Salazar, Perez Ciddio and Ely Gutierrez tried to put out the fire, but the wind blew embers across the road and caught a field on fire.

“It was about 10 feet by 10 feet, then it just blew up into a huge, running fire. It only took minutes for it to cross about five acres,” Gutierrez said. “It really makes you realize how dangerous it is to be burning now with the way the wind is and as dry as it is.”

“I’ve seen running fires move 25 feet in 30 seconds,” said Charles Eaton, deputy fire marshal.

“In the last month and a half, 80 to 90 percent of our calls have been from careless and unsafe practice,” Eaton said. “We’d like farmers to let us know three to four days in advance of their controlled burn so we can coordinate having volunteer firefighters standing by at the field. The firefighters won’t participate in the burn, but they will be there in case it gets away from the farmer.”

Eight units were called to the Maestas Road fire. The units were from the Rio Grande Estates, Jarales and Belen fire departments.

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Jennifer Harmon