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Nearly fifty firefighters battled for three hours before completely controlling a house fire in danger of becoming a forest fire in Placitas on June 23.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Placitas house fire nearly became forest fire 

~Signpost Staff

Firefighters from around the region joined forces in Placitas in late June to attack a house fire threatening to grow into a forest fire.

"Probably my concern was the biggest it's ever been," Sandoval County Fire Chief James Maxon, the on-scene commander, told the Signpost. "I really thought it was going into the forest."

Helicopters requested through New Mexico State Forestry were on their way to make water drops but proved unnecessary as the assault by about fifty firefighters stopped the fire from expanding further, he added.

The alarm came in at 2:53 p.m. on June 23 for a home on fire off Paseo de San Antonio in the eastern reaches of the Placitas village. The fire quickly spread into trees while embers jumping east over a neighboring house ignited grass and brush on the uphill side of Camino Los Altos.

Firefighters made a stand upwind of the main fire, and two firefighters maneuvered their truck onto narrow Camino Los Altos to extinguish the flames there. No other homes were damaged.

A woman escaped the burning home safely, but a neighbor suffered minor burns on his arm while trying to keep the fire from spreading, Maxon said. One firefighter reported a minor back injury as well, he added.

The Red Cross was called to assist the woman whose home was a total loss.

Maxon described the home as heavy timber construction, which created a large source of fuel for the fire. "That's why it was so hot—it was difficult to get within thirty feet," he said.

Firefighters also had to contend with temperatures near one hundred degrees and with a short supply of water. Tenders ferried water in from hydrants in subdivisions several miles away.

It took about three hours to bring the fire completely under control, and the site was monitored overnight for flare-ups.

The State Fire Marshal's Office is investigating to determine the cause of the fire and will be looking into reports of numerous fireworks and bottle rockets heard in the area the night before.

The county is currently under a ban on open burning due to the high fire danger, but Maxon said some firefighters were diverted from the Placitas blaze to knock down a brush fire cause by open burning. Small fires, believed caused by cigarettes tossed from vehicles, also were reported. Fireworks also are banned.

In addition to the Sandoval County Fire Department response, assistance in the Placitas fire came from departments in Bernalillo, Corrales, Rio Rancho, Albuquerque, and Bernalillo County.

The only other damage reported came when the firefighters headed to the spot fire on Camino los Altos ran over a water-valve enclosure while making the tight turn off Paseo de San Antonio. That damage to the valve sent water down the road, and cut off service to the village until repairs could be made.


Tribes seek role in developing county oil and gas ordinance

~Bill Diven

The contentious drafting of a county zoning ordinance for oil and gas development now has the added wrinkle of tribal governments wanting a say in the process.

During the June 15 Sandoval County commissioners meeting, tribal councilor Everett Chavez of Santo Domingo Pueblo delivered a letter from the pueblo governor. "There are some requirements as to consultation," Chavez said. "It's important—you're a political subdivision, we're a sovereign nation—that we engage, we partner, we're neighbors, and work out these collaboratives."

Cochiti Pueblo sent commissioners a similar letter, he said.

Chavez said the pueblo also was requesting information from the county on fracking, the fracturing of petroleum-bearing rock using a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals.

"Because of the methodology of fracking, it doesn't necessarily have to be on our reservation, but adjacent activities could certainly have an impact on it," he said. The tribal council would like to host a meeting with the commissioners at the pueblo, Everett added.

Commission Chairman Don Chapman had told an earlier speaker the county couldn't ban fracking, which already happens in the northwest part of the county, without incurring an expensive lawsuit it would likely lose as happened in Mora County.

Other speakers complained there was confusion about the direction commissioners gave the county Planning and Zoning Commission on how to proceed with hearings on the draft ordinance. While state agencies permit and monitor well drilling and production, county zoning applies to surface areas but only on private rural lands outside municipalities.

Most of the oil and gas wells in the county and neighboring areas are on federal and tribal lands.

The P&Z Commission was scheduled to consider the draft ordinance at its June 29 meeting with a second meeting planned for July 11, at 6:00 p.m., in the County Commission chambers.

In a separate zoning issue, commissioners voted on June 1 to reject a proposed settlement in a lawsuit filed in 2014 against the Lafarge gravel quarry in Placitas now owned by Vulcan Materials. Details of the settlement have not been released.

The lawsuit alleges violations of a 1988 agreement that controls expansion and remediation of one of four quarries in western Placitas along Interstate 25. The company contends that a later letter from the county negated those requirements.

A trial on the lawsuit is currently set to begin on October 3.

In other commission business in June:

Commissioner Jay Block said he and Commissioner David Heil have been working on a right-to-work ordinance for presentation to the commission as early as this month. The lack of an ordinance inhibits attracting large employers to the county, he said.

Right-to-work laws, rejected repeatedly by the New Mexico Legislature, generally prohibit requiring employees to join a union or pay for some union activities in order to get and keep their jobs. About eight percent of New Mexico’s 784,000 workers belong to, or are represented by, a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Zia Pueblo Lieutenant Governor Jerome Lucero, accompanied by state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, asked the county for help in fighting illegal dumping on state land west of Rio Rancho. Canyons in the escarpment are filled with unwanted, and possibly stolen, cars and mounds of debris often used for target practice by those unwilling to pay fees at the county landfill, he said.

"People don't want to pay $6," Lucero said. "They want to go out in the backcountry and shoot their trash."

Dunn said the state bought materials for six miles of four-strand barbed-wire fence with crews from Zia to do the installation. Zia would then lease the state land, clean it up, and provide law enforcement.

Lucero said the tribal government is working on a criminal trespass ordinance, and Dunn warned commissioners they are likely to get complaints about the fence since a lot of recreation occurs there, even though it's not permitted on state trust land.

The commission also has changed its schedule for July and August, pushing meetings back a week to July 13 and 27 and August 10 and 24.


Schedule for US 550 reconstruction firming up 

~Signpost Staff

The first work to finish widening U.S. Highway 550 through Bernalillo begins this fall, although it may be spring of next year before motorists feel any disruption.

The first phase expands the existing Rio Grande bridge by constructing a new section separate from the current bridge. That starts in October, with the second phase—converting about two miles of four-lane highway to six lanes—likely to ramp up as early as April, according to Joseph Casares of the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

"We've got that money secured and are looking to go back-to-back on the projects," he said during a May 24 public presentation in Bernalillo. Under that scenario, the work would be finished in the fall or winter of 2018, he added.

The total cost is around $40 million with a planning horizon of 2035 when the weekday traffic count is forecast to be forty thousand vehicles a day.

"Regionally, this is one of the few crossings we have of the Rio Grande," Casares continued. "From what we're seeing, [traffic] is going to double."

New traffic and bike lanes will begin where a previous widening project from Interstate 25 finished at Camino del Pueblo. That project ended in Rio Rancho, just west of the intersection of US 550 and State Road 528.

That intersection will be reconfigured into a CFI—continuous flow intersection—considered the key element in keeping traffic moving.

"As that intersection operates, so will all of 550," said Chris Baca of the state's engineering consulting firm Parametrix Inc.

In simple terms: the intersection takes eastbound and westbound traffic intending to turn and moves it across oncoming lanes to queue in separated turning lanes. When the light turns green, through and turning traffic moves at the same time.

The intersection of US 550 and Camino Don Tomas—encumbered by business driveways and the recent addition of a travel center and truck stop—will also be reconfigured with a median and double left-turn lanes on the south side of the street.

While the design is not yet final, the project team has been meeting with business owners to discuss access to their properties when most of the current center left-turn lane is replaced by raised medians. Left turns onto US 550 also will be limited to signaled intersections, and the addition of signaled U-turns where drivers wanting to go left instead go right and turn around.

Details with maps, video animations, and background documents can be found on the project website KeepMoving550.com.

 
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