Just past Mountainair High School's football field, Third Street curves around the MIP property, briefly turning into Smith Road before becoming Red Bluff Road at the next curve. There, a set of power lines hang over the metal gate to the Lovato family's ranch. The lines usually emit a loud, cicada-like buzz, but on the night of July 18, 2023, it also emitted a popping noise as sparks dropped from one of its connectors down on the brush below. By 7:00 PM, just as Town Councilor Dustin Kayser was leaving the Mountainair Town Council meeting, smoke rose up from a brush fire that had begun next to the gate. Winds coming off the Manzano Mountains pushed the smoke to the East. In a fortunate twist of fate, US Forest Service wildland firefighters were gathered at the Mustang Diner, just four miles away.
Kayser stopped to help the Lovato family while other drivers on the road reported the fire to Torrance County Dispatch. The fire, occasionally changing from normal orange and red colors to odd streaks of green and violet, spread out from the transformer along the ranch's northern and eastern fence lines. Emilio Lovato, the son of the property owners, shoveled sand onto the fire. Visiting US Forest Service crews from Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico were on the scene at roughly 7:10 PM, and Mountainair's volunteer firefighters and EMTs joined shortly thereafter. With the high wind, however, the fire had the ability to spread over a quarter of an acre of scrub and short, stout trees that covered the ranch land.
Felipe Lovato, the father of resident Michelle Lovato, came up US-60 from his property in Abó to be with his family. "This should be a lesson to people," he said, "People need to thin out their trees." Lovato explained that he thought people needed a sizable firebreak between their homes and vegetation and needed to have a working chainsaw handy to increase that firebreak in the event of a wildfire. Michelle Lovato explained that she thought the fire was frightening in how quickly it spread from beneath the power lines.
Crews from the US Forest Service climbed over the barbed wire fences surrounding one of the two affected properties as Mountainair's firefighters hit the flames with water. The US Forest Service Incident Commander (under FEMA regulations, there is a single point of authority in disaster response to avoid confusion and conflicting orders) reported at roughly 8:00 PM that the fire was approaching containment. A crew from Central New Mexico Electric Cooperative (CNMEC) arrived and disconnected parts of the power lines under which fire crews worked. More senior USFS firefighters were instructing junior firefighters on how to ensure brush fires did not flare back up as they removed debris from the fire's area of effect.
Michelle Lovato watched all this from her property while friends and relatives surrounded her. She stressed how she just wanted to ensure that the USFS and Mountainair firefighters were thanked, along with town councilor Dustin Kayser, the CNMEC crew, and the neighbors that came to help. "Just make sure you thank them for us," Michelle repeated.
Update - 7/19/23 at 1623: Sheldon Roberts of CNMEC confirmed that there was a loose connection in the power lines that was addressed by CNMEC's crew. I've asked Roberts if it would be possible to identify and thank the crew that worked with the firefighters on the scene.