Wildfire prompts closure of New Mexico national park

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 14, 2011 5:28 PM
Wildfire prompts closure of New Mexico national park

By Dennis Carroll

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A brush fire that has torched 16,000 acres of high desert in southeastern New Mexico forced the closure of Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the evacuation of an adjacent town on Tuesday, authorities said.

The blaze, which erupted in the park on Monday afternoon, also prompted authorities to shut down a 30-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 62-180 between the city of Carlsbad and the Texas border, said Eddy County sheriff's captain Jeff Zuniga.

As of Tuesday afternoon, firefighters had managed to carve a containment line around 10 percent of the fire's perimeter but were hampered by 100-degree heat, sustained winds of 30 miles per hour and extremely low humidity.

"It's hot, dry and windy," fire information officer Jennifer Myslivy told Reuters.

Meanwhile, a separate wildfire burning 300 miles to the north along the Colorado border tripled in size overnight to 24,000 acres and has destroyed nine structures, according to New Mexico forestry spokesman Dan Ware.

The so-called Track Fire, which started on Sunday north of Raton, N.M., has forced the closure of a 30-mile segment of Interstate 25 between Raton and Trinidad, Colorado, due to reduced visibility from drifting smoke.

Five-hundred residents in the vicinity of Raton were under evacuation orders, Ware said.

The Carlsbad Caverns fire was burning mostly in the national park as well as on adjacent federal land and private property, charring a landscape of rocky slopes and canyons covered in scrub brush, grasses and cactus.

The 46,000-acre park, known for its scenic limestone caves and an abundance of bats, was evacuated on Monday and will remain closed for at least the next two days. Myslivy said the fire had damaged water and sewer lines in the park.

The park, currently at its peak season, attracts about 400,000 visitors a year.

On Tuesday, authorities ordered the evacuation of the adjacent town of Whites City, forcing some 300 residents, tourists and business owners to flee, authorities said.

Eddy County Manager Allen Sartin said no injuries have been reported but a number of buildings in the town were threatened, including some National Park Service structures.

"Whites City is sort of in the bull's eye," he said.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)