The View from Here

Careless errors can lead to tragedy


Several years ago, when I was covering state government from Santa Fe, I attended the annual briefing given to reporters prior to the upcoming wildfire season.

After going over the current conditions and expectations for the coming months, the discussion turned to reporters’ safety. We were warned about the unpredictable nature of fire and the importance of following their directions at all times.

At the end, they talked about worst-case scenarios. The instructor pulled out what looked like an aluminum-foil blanket and explained that, when all else fails, the only thing left to do is huddle beneath the blanket.

The mental image that created comes flashing back into my mind every time there’s another wildfire, especially fatal fires such as the ones burning in and around Ruidoso.

As of Sunday, there were more than 1,000 firefighters battling the South Fork and Salt fires. On their best day, it’s miserably hot, physically grueling work requiring constant attention and focus. Their worst day is too horrible to contemplate. In 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed while battling a fire near Prescott, Arizona.

There have been two confirmed deaths thus far in the Ruidoso fires. Both appeared to be trying to flee from the flames. The burned body of a 60-year-old man was found on the side of the road near the Swiss Chalet Motel. The second victim, who has not yet been identified, was found in the driver’s seat of his or her car.

The fires swept through the village of Ruidoso and Ruidoso Downs, claiming more that 1,400 structures and forcing more than 8,000 people to evacuate. Most of them will not have homes to return to when they are finally allowed back into the area. They are relying on the kindness of neighbors, including here in Las Cruces.

The FBI is leading the investigation into how the fires started, and is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who is responsible. That suggests they have ruled out natural causes like a lightning strike.

It could have been a deliberate act, but it’s more likely this was the result of a careless mistake - an unattended campfire that somebody wrongfully assumed was extinguished, a lit cigarette flicked out the window or a foolish attempt to burn trash.

While nature may not have caused the fire, it certainly facilitated it. The scorching hot summers and lack of rain have turned forests throughout the southwest into a tinderbox. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 19,444 wildfires this year, consuming more than 2.1 billion acres of forest.

All of which makes the annual tradition we’re about to engage in on July 4 seem a bit foolhardy. But that will do little to deter revelers.

State law mandates that cities and counties allow fireworks. The best local leaders can do is pass so-called “safe and sane” regulations that are neither observed nor enforced. It’s the same thing every year.

The show must go on. I get it. But this year especially, take the time and effort to do it properly. Find a safe location and have a source of water available, just in case.

Walter Rubel can be reached at