Fire crews continued to put out smoldering embers and mop up the burn area along Curtis Canyon Thursday afternoon near Mayhill. The U.S. Forest Service determined the 109-acre blaze that forced an evacuation of several homeowners and some businesses was human caused, but the fire was still under investigation. (Jill McLaughlin Photo)
MAYHILL — A fire that ignited and spread quickly, fueled by powerful winds the day before, was fiercely attacked by fire crews and contained before it spread into the small town of Mayhill, Thursday.
Residents feared the worst as memories returned of a similar blaze two years prior that destroyed three homes and caused a massive evacuation.
Crews were able to contain the fire to 109 acres in the area of Curtis Canyon, mostly on federal land. The flames jumped U.S. Hwy. 82 during the incident, near ranchland and homes.
Hand crews remained at the sight Thursday evening mopping up hot spots along the canyon.
Fire investigators had sealed off an area on top of a hill past the canyon as they looked for an answer as to why the fire sparked the sweeping blaze that threatened nearly 20 structures and caused several evacuations.
No structures were destroyed.
Officials have determined that the fire was caused by humans, but the fire is still under investigation, according to Beth Mitchell, public information officer for Lincoln National Forest.
“It just takes one spark or flame to ignite a wildfire, especially in windy conditions,” Mitchell said. “We’re in a very serious drought. The conditions are extremely dry. The trees are stressed. There’s lots of fuel out there to burn.”
Residents in Mayhill below the canyon were called through the automated reverse 9-1-1 system and told to voluntarily evacuate Wednesday evening sometime after 5 p.m.
Michele Gray of the Mayhill Café and Hotel said the news was unsettling, but she knew the evacuation orders were coming after she smelled the smoke and felt the strong winds.
“The smoke and the wind was horrendous, so it was better to be safe than sorry,” Gray said.
Many in Mayhill still talk about the massive wildfire that destroyed three homes and burned through the area recently. Two years ago, on May 19, 2011, wind-driven fire burned nearly 32,000 acres in Otero and Chaves counties. The blaze was ignited two miles west of Mayhill and destroyed three structures while burning on federal, state and private land, forcing the evacuation of all Mayhill residents.
“Two years ago in May, we had a pretty major fire and we were the only place that had electricity,” Gray said. “Everybody is still nervous from that. It’s very frightening”
Customers arrived Thursday morning at the café, the only one in town, to talk about the fire or meet as usual. One of Gray’s customers told her the fire burned all around their home with flames shooting above the trees.
“The firefighters do a great job,” Gray said. “We’re a very small community and we take care of one another. It really makes a difference. Everybody is very invested in each other’s lives. We couldn’t do it without each other.”
The area around Mayhill is filled with a combination of residential homes, vacation homes, campgrounds, ranches, a cemetery and the small town that includes a café, a market, a beauty shop, fire station, a post office and other small buildings.
The area is also popular for hunting enthusiasts.
The Curtis fire required 15 engines, two Type 1 Hot Shot crews, one Type 2 hand crew and several cooperating Otero County emergency response resources. More than 20 pieces of firefighting equipment were required.
With drought conditions in the forest continuing to exist, Mitchell said it is best to check with the Forest Service before proceeding with any potentially dangerous activity. Any spark from a gun, four-wheeler, a campfire, or any machinery can start a fire.
Piñon juniper and grass was involved in the fire. Fire resources will continue to extinguish hot spots and secure and reinforce the containment line, according to the Lincoln National Forest.
“You can always call the Forest Service,” Mitchell said. “No one wants to be responsible for setting a wildfire. It’s best to be careful upfront.”
Fire restrictions will begin on Lincoln National Forest’s Guadalupe Ranger District beginning Sunday at 8 a.m.
The restrictions will include the prohibition of building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, campfire, charcoal, coal, wood or stove, with the exceptions of the use of petroleum-fueled stoves, lanterns, propane grills or heating devices as long as the devices meet the fire specification for safety.
Smoking will be prohibited except within an enclosed vehicle or building. Explosives and using a firearm, air rifle or gas gun will not be allowed.
Fireworks or pyrotechnics possession is not allowed and operating chainsaw or power equipment powered by internal combustion engine is prohibited between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
For more information about the restrictions, visit http://firerestrictions.us or www.fs.usda.gov/lincoln