Editor's note: This updates with the latest news from the fire lines.
A fast-moving wildlife that started on June 13 at Carlsbad Caverns National Park led to a closure and evacuation of the park. The fire burned over the park's developed area, but quick action by personnel from the park and surrounding area resulted in a near-miraculous save for structures and people.
The fire, which started near the Walnut Canyon Scenic Loop Road in the park, was reported at about 2:30 p.m. on Monday. Employees from Carlsbad Caverns and neighboring Guadalupe Mountains National Park responded immediately and tried to extinguish and contain the blaze.
There was ample cause for concern. The fire was only about three miles from the visitor center and heading in the direction of the main entrance road and other park facilities. A park spokesperson said, "Vegetation was tinder dry and easy to ignite because the park has received no measurable precipitation for eight months and had baked under the hot New Mexico sun."
Hot, dry winds pushed the blaze, dubbed the Loop Fire, rapidly through the dry fuel, and within an hour, park management announced the park was closing and visitors were directed to leave. By 4:00 p.m., employees and park residents were instructed to evacuate.
That prompt decision proved to be precisely the right call.
As the evacuation was underway, facility management employees stretched water hoses throughout the housing, maintenance, and historic areas and began soaking those facilities. Volunteer and paid fire engines and crews from around the region responded quickly.
The fire eventually burned over the park’s housing, maintenance, and historic district and visitor center, but according to a park spokesperson, "Incredibly, no notable damage has occurred and no injuries have been reported. Park employees are assessing the condition of the park’s buildings and infrastructure. Of primary concern is possible damage to the park’s water, sewer, and electrical lines."
This desert version of The Great Escape is a testimony to prompt action, hard work and excellent interagency cooperation. Carlsbad Caverns National Park Superintendent John Benjamin said, “We can’t thank and praise the firefighters and support staff enough for their quick response and teamwork! When notified of the fire, park staff responded immediately, but there would be much more damage in the park if others hadn’t arrived to help. Within a couple hours, several of the area’s volunteer and paid fire engines and crews were on site. Also, our neighboring national park, Guadalupe Mountains, sent some of their staff to help with the fire and security.”
The gateway community of White City, New Mexico, was also evacuated, and it, too was saved by prompt action. According to the New Mexico Fire Information Office, crews conducted multiple burnout operations on the fire to "black line" around the town and keep the fire from burning down into the community. The fire was confined to south of Dark Canyon Road and west of US Highway 62/180. That major roadway was closed for a number of hours, but has now reopened.
In the first hours after the fire began, there was great concern for hikers and researchers known to be in the park's backcountry. Contacting those groups was an immediate priority, and all of those individuals were accounted for and left the park safely.
Within the first twenty-four hours after it started, the Loop Fire had burned an estimated at 16,000 acres. Control efforts are continuing, but the work is difficult due to the rough terrain, dry fuel and hot, windy weather.
The park remains closed today, but may reopen Thursday if conditions allow. If you're planning a visit to the park this week, check the park website for updates. Telephone and internet connections in the park are inoperable but communications in the administrative office in Carlsbad are working. When safe to do so, park staff will begin assessing impacts to park natural resources and wildlife.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.