A 2,700-acre fire in central New Mexico was caused by sparks from a hand-held metal grinder that ignited grass and weeds, authorities said Tuesday.
State Forestry Division officials were looking for a person or persons they believe stripped steel parts from a bulldozer, an act that led to the fire near the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge.
Authorities found parts of the machine missing and hand tools left at the scene, forestry spokesman Dan Ware said. They believe that whoever was using the tools left the area quickly once they realized a fire had started.
The fire that broke out Saturday afternoon led to the evacuation of about 50 people from the New Mexico Boys Ranch. Fire officials have lifted that evacuation and a second evacuation in southern New Mexico that forced people from their homes and the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino.
Evidence suggests the stripping activity started several other small fires that were put out with a shovel before the larger fire escaped.
The fire was listed as 50 percent contained Tuesday.
Boys Ranch residents were allowed to return at noon Tuesday. Most of the ranch's 25 young people went to their families or stayed with a counselor at a motel. About 18 staff members and their children also left the ranch along the Rio Grande near Belen, about 60 miles south of Albuquerque.
Crews were working on the flanks of the blaze as vegetation inside the fire lines continued to smolder, fire information officer Vicky Fox said. No structures burned, she said.
Barricades were lifted Monday from neighborhoods evacuated in the Ruidoso Downs area of southern New Mexico. Residents had been forced out Sunday by a wildfire that officials said burned five homes and seven outbuildings, damaged two other homes and two outbuildings and burned numerous vehicles.
That fire, which has burned more than 10,000 acres, was 20 percent contained Tuesday.
Gov. Susana Martinez planned to visit Ruidoso on Wednesday to be briefed on response efforts and to meet with residents who were affected by the blaze.
The fire broke out Sunday in steep, rugged Gavilan Canyon and grew rapidly, pushed by winds estimated at 50 to 60 mph. As of Tuesday, it had burned nearly 16 square miles of grass, brush and pinon and juniper trees on private, state and federal land about 200 miles south of Albuquerque.
Lighter winds and cooler temperatures helped the battle, fire officials said.
A third fire that blackened about 2,000 acres of brush in the Uvas Valley in southwestern New Mexico along N.M. 26 did not burn any structures, authorities said.
Crews were also able to quickly contain a 2,400-acre grass fire that broke out Tuesday afternoon north of Portales. No structures were threatened. Authorities said the cause of the fire was under investigation.