Penasco Fire

April 30, 2002 — A forest fire of unknown but suspicious origin began today (Tuesday) at mid-afternoon near Cloudcroft. At 10pm the blaze was still considered out of control.

The fire has involved about 250 acres with some crowning. It is located about 14 miles Southeast of the Village on NM 130 (about 4 miles from Ponderosa Pines golf course and subdivision).

Winds are 15 to 25 mph Northerly. The Village of Cloudcroft is in no immediate danger, but is on alert.

Slurry planes were used in fighting the blaze during the afternoon.

No property damage reported at this time. Several residences are located in the fire area.

This reporter was escorted into the fire zone this evening by Otero Country Sheriff’s deputies. The fire fighting process is in the containment phase. Here are several pictures of isolated hot spots.

Photo 1
Photo 2

Rio Penasco Fire

The Rio Penasco Fire, as it is being called, which began during the afternoon Tuesday, continues to burn about 14 miles from the Village of Cloudcroft on Hwy 130.

No reports of property loss or injury. The only evacuations have been in the immediate fire area.

Gusty winds are complicating containment efforts but law enforcement officials on the scene indicated fire fighting efforts were going well. was on the scene earlier this evening and was given a Sheriff’s office escort to the fire’s perimeter. We witnessed several hot spots and some crowning of the fire due to the severe dry conditions.

The Village of Cloudcroft is not considered in immediate danger.

May 1, 2002, 9am — just returned from the scene of the Rio Penasco Fire.

High winds are hindering fire fighting efforts, but, according to the project information officer, the fire has been burning in a circular, hurricane-like pattern. This means the fire is having to feed on fuel that has already burned, which could help in efforts to quell the blaze.

Officially the Forest Service still has 250 acres as involved. Sheriff’s office estimates are at 300 acres. No reports of injuries or property loss.

Winds are gusting up to 45 miles per hour, making it impossible to get a handle on the fire. Firefighters are concentrating on property defense. There are several homes in the immediate fire area. All have been evacuated.

The Village of Cloudcroft is approximately 15 miles from the blaze and is considered not to be in immediate danger.

If there is any change in the situation, we will report it on

These pictures were taken Wednesday morning. Because of the unpredictable winds, we were not allowed to go closer to the fire.

Photo 3
Photo 4
Photo 5
Photo 6

May 1, 2002, 4pm — The wind has been a definite negative in the fighting of the Rio Penasco Fire, burning out of control about 17 miles from Cloudcroft between NM 130 and Highway 82 near Mayhill.

Winds of up to 50 miles per hour kept fire fighters off the fire lines today for the most part. Their main goal today has been property protection.

Slurry planes have been grounded due to the winds.

Winds are subsiding a little this afternoon but are still high.

Two homes have reportedly been lost near Mayhill. The amount of involvement has increased from 250 acres this morning to about 800 acres this afternoon. No injuries have been reported. About 1000 fire fighters and support crew are working on this blaze with more reinforcements expected soon.

Voluntary evacuations have been instituted in Curtis Canyon and in and near the Village of Mayhill.

Should evacuations of other areas be announced, law enforcement officials ask that the evacuation notices be acted upon quickly due to the high winds and volatility of this fire.

An evacuation center has been opened at the high school in Cloudcroft.

Updates on when new information is received.

May 2, 2002, 7:30am — High winds have caused the Rio Penasco fire to balloon from 250 acres yesterday to over 11,000 acres today.

As many as 20 structures are said to have been destroyed.

800 persons have been voluntarily evacuated. An evacuation center is set up at the Cloudcroft High School.

The fire’s movement this morning is North Easterly.

Portions of NM 130 and US 82 have been closed.

No injuries reported. Winds are calmer today.

May 2, 2002, 4:45pm — “This fire is a heartbreaker,” said one Otero County Sheriff’s office official.

The Rio Penasco fire, with it’s hottest area located between NM 130 and US 82 near Mayhill, moved from a 250 acre fire yesterday to an estimated 1000 acres of involvement today.

Slurry planes attacked the fire with a vengeance this morning…the huge tanker planes flying in and dropping their red fire retardant at a frequency of about one drop a minute.

The winds picked up again this afternoon. Fire fighters were drawn back from the fireline. The tankers were grounded. A day that started with optimism has ended in uncertainty. Officials are hoping to continue retardant drops this evening when the winds die down.

No one is willing to speculate on when the fire will be declared under control.

The Rio Penasco fire has indirectly claimed one life. William Myers is said to have likely started the blaze accidentally. Today he committed suicide, leaving behind a note saying he just couldn’t live with himself. Myers lived near Mayhill. The Otero county sheriff’s office says the fire was probably started by a faulty spark arrester on Myers’ 4-wheel ATV.

About 600 firefighters are on the blaze. As many as 7 tankers are dropping retardant when winds permit. They are backed by several spotter aircraft.

A shelter for those displaced by the fire has been set up at the Cloudcroft High School.

Cloudcroft is not considered in immediate danger.

Here are some more photos taken today (May 3).

May 3, 2002, 12am — Linda Green of Mayhill has kindly provided these photos of the fire taken on Wed, May 1 (the first day).

Linda Green´s Photos (taken May 1).

May 3, 3003, 10:15am — Command changes have slowed down the flow of information this morning.

According to this morning’s briefing, there has been no increase in the amount of acreage involved (9500 acres). No new reports of any property loss.

The Village of Mayhill continues to be threatened by the movement of the fire, which broke through containment lines yesterday afternoon after winds picked up.

The Village of Cloudcroft is in no immediate danger.

9 slurry planes are taking advantage of calmer winds this morning in a constant attack. Forecasts indicate winds may pick up again this afternoon.

5% containment. 20 structures burned (at least two homes).

No injuries (other than the reported suicide of the person suspected of accidentally starting the blaze).

Resources committed — 9 air tankers, 6 helicopters, 18 engines, 12 dozers, 11 water tenders, 8 Type I crews and 17 Type II crews.

An evacuation center is being maintained at Cloudcroft High School.

May 3, 2002, 11:30am — Here are two views of the fire looking Southeast from US 82 from just above Cloud Country that were shot by Preston Brashear on May 2 at 8pm.

Photos by Preston Brashear (taken May 2).

May 3, 2002, 5:30pm — Yesterday fire officials were saying the Rio Penasco fire was 5% contained.

Today they say it is 10-12% controlled.

Slurry planes kept up a feverish attack on the fire this morning until winds grounded them. Large water-bearing helicopters took up the attack, but they were unable to carry as much retardant as the planes. Over 70,000 gallons of retardant has been applied.

Yesterday, observed a fireline on the other side of the mountain crest from Hwy 82. Today that fireline had moved over the top of the mountain and was headed toward ranches and homes near the highway. Many of those residences are in clearings, which gives them better chances of survival. Some are not.

One report today put the amount of burned forest at 15,400 acres (up from the 9500 acres reported late yesterday).

Compared to the Scott Able Fire near the same area 2 years ago, the Penasco fire has caused much more damage. The Scott Able Fire was under control after 3 days. After 3 days, the Penasco Fire remains a threat.

Officials have been unable to update property damage assessments because of the volatility of the fire, making it impossible to send in ground units. Yesterday’s report of 20 buildings destroyed is still the official estimate, but it is expected to go higher.

Still no injuries reported.

Law enforcement agencies from other New Mexico counties have come into the area to prevent looting and to maintain traffic control.

Tomorrow will hopefully be a better day, with winds expected to be less than since the fire began. Slurry planes are back in the air this afternoon and ground crews are able to move in.

The Village of Mayhill has been declared out of immediate danger. The Village of Cloudcroft is not considered in the path of the fire, but smoke from the blaze could be seen from Cloudcroft this afternoon, putting Villager’s on edge.

Unless there is a drastic change in the status of the Rio Penasco fire,’s next report will be tomorrow morning.

Photos taken this afternoon (May 3).

May 4, 2002, 8:30am — Sacramento Mountain residents woke this morning to the drones of helicopters and tanker planes working to reclaim the forest from the Rio Penasco Fire.

Because of more cooperative winds, the Rio Penasco Fire is now 50% contained. Wind conditions are expected to be favorable for fire fighting today and Sunday.

20 structures (mostly homes) have been destroyed, but officials are saying 600 others remain in danger despite the fact that they are getting a handle on the blaze.

Mayhill, New Mexico, once in serious jeopardy from advancing flames, is now considered safe.

While smoke was visible in Cloudcroft yesterday, the Village was not in the path of the fire.

Crews continued to prepare structures near the fire for protection by setting back fires and removing fuel along Hwy 82 and James Canyon.

Today’s forecast: Winds 12mph, 71 degrees, 9 percent RH. No moisture in the forecast.

Resources: 15 type I crews (best trained). 27 type II crews (support). 7 helicopters, 11 air tankers, 21 engines, 12 dozers, 4 camp crews, 984 total personnel.

Many of the assets working the Ryan fire in Arizona have been moved to the Penasco fire since the Arizona blaze is considered 100% contained.

No injuries reported. One death associated indirectly with the fire.

Officials say it is still too early to predict when the 4-day-old fire will be totally contained.

May 4, 2002, 5:00pm — “The weather gave us a good shot today.”

So says a Forest Service official that stated the crews (numbering close to 1000) are engaged in cleaning up existing hot spots in the Rio Penasco Fire and making sure contained areas stay that way.

Since there were no official news briefings this weekend, the amount of containment remains at 50%, but observed considerably less fire and smoke this afternoon and no advancement of the blaze in any direction according to law enforcement officers manning perimeters.

Credit for keeping a disaster from turning into a more tragic loss of property was given to local crews…the Mescalero Hot Shots, the Sacramento Mountain Hot Shots, and various engines associated with the Lincoln National Forest fire teams…who secured properties during the out-of-control situation that existed from Tuesday through Friday.

The property loss is still officially 20 structures. Assessment of how many of those structures are homes is on-going. Earlier concerns that the property loss total would be much higher has been dampened by today’s dramatic progress in containing the fire.

Satellite images indicate there are hot spots still existing in the Southwest and Northeast areas of the fire grid.

While some 600 homes remain in potential danger, a special team was assigned this morning to coordinate the return of residents to their homes.

The Villages of Mayhill (in serious danger in the earlier stages of the fire) and Cloudcroft (out of the effective range of the fire) are now considered safe from this, the worst wildfire this season so far in the nation.

Unofficial response to the question of when the fire will be declared 100% contained is probably tomorrow or Monday if the weather continues to cooperate.

Photos taken May 4, late afternoon.

May 4, 2002, 11:30pm — Here´s the latest AP report on the fire:

MAYHILL, N.M. (AP) — Firefighters continued their steady progress Saturday against a 15,500-acre wildfire that had destroyed at least 20 structures in southern New Mexico. Officials said the blaze was 60% contained.

“It went real well today. The line that had been established is holding,” fire information officer Donna Nemeth said.

Fire crews were expected to turn their focus to the fire’s eastern edge; full containment was predicted by midweek.

Firefighters were conducting a survey to determine how many of the burned structures were homes, Nemeth said. The Otero County Sheriff’s Department allowed some residents to temporarily visit the area Saturday.

Much of the progress on the fire came Friday when winds declined, temperatures cooled and water-and slurry-dropping aircraft were able to take to the skies.

May 5, 2002, 9:30am — Today dawned with light winds and cool temperatures.

If the weather holds, crews working the Rio Penasco Fire are expected to take a giant step forward in bringing the fire to its knees.

“We are completely at the mercy of the weather,” said one hotshot who was standing in line at the Cloudcroft Allsup’s 7-11 buying a snack and a soft drink before he and his crew headed back out to work.

Weather conditions are critical until the fire has been completely contained. Then, and only then, can officials and the residents of the Rio Penasco Fire area breath easier.

Slurry planes could be heard flying in and out of the effected area this morning. These planes are rendered ineffective when the winds get up beyond 25 mph. Their drops are crucial to eliminating the hot spots of the fire.

No new outbreaks. No reports of new property damage or injuries.

The crew size and ordinance committed remain basically the same as yesterday. The Associated Press is reporting 60% containment.

May 5, 2002, 5:00pm — Brisk winds this afternoon stifled efforts to get the final upper-hand on the Rio Penasco Fire. No new break-outs were reported.

Situation reports this afternoon put the total acreage involved at about the same as yesterday (15,400). Containment remains at about 60%.

Hwy 82 has been opened to normal traffic. Limited access has been allowed persons owning homes in the evacuated areas. A recovery group has been assigned to assisting residents returning to their homes. A structure damage assessment group is visiting areas in the fire area to pinpoint damage.

The evacuation center at Cloudcroft High School remains open.

975 persons, including crews from all over the country, are assisting.

May 5, 2002, 11:45pm — Here´s another photo kindly provided by Preston Brashear.

Photo taken at 6:30pm, May 5.

May 6, 2002, 8:30am — Aerial and ground crews continue to grapple with the Rio Penasco fire with favorable weather conditions helping today.

The ground assessment crew reports that 17 homes and 27 outbuildings have been destroyed.

Containment has been set at 65%.

15,400 acres have been burned.

An unofficial target for 100% containment is set for Wednesday or Thursday if the weather cooperates.

No new reports of injuries. No new outbreaks.

May 6, 2002, 4:30pm — The Situation report on the Rio Penasco Fire is the same as this morning:

* No new break-outs.
* Wind gusty today.
* 65% containment.

May 6, 2002, 11:00pm — Here is a general map of the fire extent as it was on May 3 provided by the Southwest Area Wildland Fire Operations Center. This map is not to be considered precise.

Fire Map May 3, 2002.

May 7, 2002, 8:30am — Officials are hoping for total containment of the Rio Penasco Fire by tomorrow.

Containment today was reported at 65% with most of the flare-ups occurring on islands inside the burn area. There has been no breach of the containment lines for 4 days.

A few extra people have been assigned to the fire in an attempt to muscle it out. 1031 persons are working the Rio Penasco Fire.

A dozer-dug perimeter around the fire is about complete.

May 7, 2002, 5:30pm — No new developments on the Rio Penasco Fire.

Officials are still saying total containment could come as early as tomorrow.

Winds were brisk but manageable today.

We hope to post some pictures tomorrow of the property damage.

May 8, 2002, 9:30am — The crews are pulling out. The slurry planes have been withdrawn. A crew of about 40 are left to mop up the Rio Penasco Fire, which is listed at 85% contained. Full containment is hoped for today.

Damage and burn statistics remain the same.

Weather looks good for today’s work.

May 8, 2002, 5:30pm — Final Report.

After 8 days, with almost 16,000 acres and an estimated $6,000,000 damage in its wake, the Penasco Fire near Cloudcroft is considered totally contained.

There were no injuries (outside of exhaustion and minor sprains) attributed directly to the fire.

There will be lasting affects, however, including the visual image of the devastation along US 82 between Mayhill and Cloudcroft and along NM 130 between the same towns…there to remind motorists of what wildfire can do to a forest area for years to come.

Photos taken May 8.