Air Force: Range fire caused by air training munitions

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

There is no vegetation to hold the dusty land in place after a fire burned about 27,000 acres of rangeland in southeastern New Mexico. A heavy coat of dirt sticks to the windows and covers the floors of Jeff Essary’s home.

Reminders of the fire that devoured more than 700 acres of his land are nearly constant, he said.

Essary, his newborn son, his daughter and his wife were among 100 families evacuated from their Floyd homes Nov. 30 after a fire spread from the Melrose Bombing Range.

The wind-driven fire was caused by training munitions, according to an Air Force press release issued Tuesday.

A B-1B bomber from Texas on a training flight over the Melrose Bombing Range released a bomb dummy, and its spotting charge — roughly equivalent to the charge of a shotgun shell — sparked the blaze in the arid grassland.

An Air Force Accident Investigation board report said leaders of the Operations Support Squadron and the Civil Engineer at nearby Cannon Air Force Base failed to recognize the fire danger and take measures to lower the risk of the uncontrollable blaze.

At the time of the fire, the range’s fire department was understaffed, communications equipment failed, and there was a large amount of vegetation overgrowth, and high winds on the range, the report said.

Despite that, officials let aircraft drop practice munitions that had been known to start fires, the report said.

High winds fanned the flames from the bombing range into adjacent property. Cannon meteorologists measured wind speeds of 41 mph on the day the fire started, according to previous reports.

A school and Floyd residents were evacuated for several hours as a result of the blaze.

“It was devastating mentally. But the weeks and months afterward were worse. Mentally it has been bad,” Essary said Tuesday afternoon, as he paused from cutting hay to recall the November fire.

The Floyd landowner said his property value has plunged since the fire, and he fears another serious fire could erupt at the bombing range, a swath of land located about 22 miles of Cannon used for training purposes.

Essary is one of approximately 50 property owners who were affected by the fire. About 50 miles of fencing and 10 wells were damaged or destroyed, two structures were charred, and 35 cattle, two sheep and a pig were injured or killed, according to Cannon officials. The bulk of the land burned in the fire was cattle grazing land, they said.

There is no official damage estimate, but the Air Force has paid about $700,000 to more than 30 claimants thus far, Cannon officials said on Tuesday.

“We regret the hardship many of our neighbors have had to endure as a result of the fire and will continue to diligently work to fairly resolve all claims,” said Lt. James Nichols of the Cannon Air Force Base public affairs office.

Nichols said a number of measures have been implemented at Cannon to mitigate the chance of another fire. Flammable vegetation at the range will be kept under control, communications capabilities with Cannon and neighboring emergency responders will be strengthened, and range activities will be suspended in accordance with risk factors, Nichols said. Steps toward such goals have already been taken, he said.

For residents of Floyd, the trauma of the fire lingers.

Essary said he has not received a damage settlement from the Air Force.

Ranchvale resident Jerry Nash, who lost 700 acres of grazing land in the blaze, called the fire a disaster, although he said he received his settlement expeditiously and praised Cannon officials for their handling of the blaze, for which he said they “always” took responsibility.

“(The fire) uprooted a lot of lives,” he said. “It almost wiped the town of Floyd off the map.”

Firefighters from across the region responded to the blaze, which was contained the day after it started.

“There should not have been any fire activity at that time of the year under those weather conditions,” Nash said.

The landowner said erosion problems for farmers and ranchers may stretch into the future, as the grassland may not recover any time soon, even if sufficient rain were to fall on the arid region.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.