Area Families Impacted by Skates Fire

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(Originally published June 20, 2006 in the Silver City Daily Press. Part of a series of articles on wildfires which led to a New Mexico Press Association award for Continuing Coverage.)

When Ralph and Natalie Troski moved to New Mexico, it was to escape the hurricanes that frequently blasted their Kissimee, Fla., home. Two days after they unloaded their belongings from a truck, firefighters asked them to leave their Lake Roberts home, due to the approach of the Skates Fire. The Troskis refused to evacuate.

“We moved here last week,” Ralph Troski said. “The fire was already here, but it was out toward the Skates area, and we never thought it was going to be coming out this way. “We were supposed to close on the house the day they told us to get out of here.”

He told the Daily Press on Monday that Natalie made the decision to stay.

“My wife said ‘We’re not leaving, because if we leave, we’re going to end up losing the house, and everything we own is in the house now.'”

U.S. Forest Service personnel, aided by the New Mexico State Police, Grant County Sheriff’s Department, New Mexico Department of Transportation, and Santa Clara police officers, evacuated close to 220 area residents last week. At 10 this morning, the evacuation order was lifted.

No structures were lost when the blaze breached a hand-cut fire line June 15. Some people went home Saturday, when the Forest Service escorted residents into the area to survey the effects of the fire.

The Daily Press spoke with two couples who returned Saturday: Ron and Martha Knuckles and Ralph and Brenda Kelley. The Knuckleses live in the Lake Roberts subdivision, while the Kelleys’ home is about a mile west on Trout Valley Drive. Both had nothing but praise for Forest Service and other personnel fighting the fire.

“The fire department and all these folks have been wonderful,” Martha Knuckles said.

The couple evacuated Thursday, and traveled to the Red Cross emergency shelter at San Lorenzo.

“We were in the shelter, and we stayed one night,” she said. “We had food, and we had a bag of goodies. We were treated very well.”

Ron Knuckles said the evacuation order was facilitated by regular briefings at the Sapillo Creek Volunteer Fire Station.

“It was pretty smooth,” he said. “We had plenty of time to get out.”

The Skates Fire is 40 percent contained, and has charred more than 11,400 acres.

According to Gabriel Partido, Forest Service spokesman, the crews are continuing to patrol the northern boundary of the fire.

On Monday, a helicopter was coordinating efforts with ground crews to address areas of intense fire activity. Partido told residents at a briefing Monday night that fire engines and personnel would remain in the Lake Roberts area until assured the fire is contained.

“The firefighters here are lifesavers, you know,” Ralph Troski said.

Ralph Kelley said he wanted to find some way of showing his appreciation for the firefighters. He gave the Daily Press a tour of his home, overlooking the Sapillo Creek Drainage, on Monday.

“I want to show you what the firefighters saved,” he said. From a screened deck on the south side of his house, Kelley pointed out a ridgeline on the opposite side of the valley, less than half-a-mile away.

“That’s where the fire came over the ridge,” he said.

According to Kelley, flames came within 20 feet of some structures, though his home was out of harm’s way. During Monday’s briefing, Partido said the Forest Service has been grateful to the residents affected by the fire.

“We really appreciate your patience and understanding,” he said. “I’m sorry this happened, and that you had to stay away from your homes so long, but you made this a lot easier for the firefighters by your being here.”

A public meeting with the incident commander, Mike Dietrich, will be held Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Sapillo Creek Volunteer Fire Station. Partido said Dietrich will brief residents on fire activity, and answer questions regarding firefighters’ efforts.

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