With 101,563 acres burned, the Donaldson is now considered the second-largest wildfire in New Mexico history, runner-up only to the still burning Las Conchas Fire in northern New Mexico that has claimed 136,955 acres and is still only 40 percent contained.
“We’re pretty close to the end here,” Tudor said, a whiteboard on the wall proclaiming the fire to be 98 percent contained, with complete containment becoming official on Friday.
Tudor said crews will remain in the area, largely performing rehab work for damage caused both by the fire and the efforts of more than 800 firefighters to knock it down.
“There’s still some smoke in the area, and likely will be until we get some rain,” Tudor said.
The Donaldson, Tudor said, was a stubborn, difficult fire to fight from the very beginning – one of the toughest fires he’s ever had to deal with in a 23-year career capped by what he called “hands down, the worst fire season” he’s ever seen.
Sparked by lightning strikes shortly after midnight on June 28 – one of a string of fires all ignited by the same lightning “bust” – the Donaldson initially was two fires, one on the ranch of newsman Sam Donaldson and the second, some nine miles to the south, dubbed the Game Fire.
Fueled by tall, dead grass and tinder-dry conditions, the flames advanced so fast, Tudor said, by 3 p.m. that afternoon, the two fires merged into one, hence the term “complex” was appended.
Widely acknowledged as one of the best firefighters and commanders in the state, Tudor said he knew right away the Donaldson was going to be a tough fire to put down.
Accessibility to the most active areas was limited, he said. “There just aren’t a lot of roads out here and it was difficult to gain access.”
Adding to the difficulty was the sheer number of fires burning across the state – the same lightning that sparked the Donaldson and Game fires also caused a fire in Capitan and another on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. The Little Lewis Fire near Mayhill was another blaze ignited by lightning from the same storm.
Because of its proximity to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and its nuclear waste hazards, the Las Conchas Fire, which was already burning, was designated the No. 1 priority fire in the entire nation, and was the top need when it came to the allocation of resources, Tudor said.
“We were competing for assets,” Tudor said. “There were a lot of priorities to be considered when it came to the assignment of firefighters.”
“I wouldn’t say the potential for loss (in the Las Conchas Fire) was greater,” Tudor added. “No structure is ever considered more valuable, nor is any community considered more important. That fire was simply a different type of fire with different types of fuels than we had down here.”
And Tudor insisted that even if he would have had more firefighters in the earliest hours of the fight, there was a high likelihood, given the terrain and critically dry conditions, the Donaldson would have proved to be overwhelming.
“This one definitely put us to the test,” Tudor said, “there was just so much country and not a lot of resources. Our crews – and we had crews from as far away as Montana, Oregon, Alaska and Minnesota – worked a lot of hours trying to get this fire contained and couldn’t do it.”
There were, he said, initially some problems with communications and getting fire crews assigned to the right places as quickly as possible – a glitch that led to one of the rarer issues Tudor said he’s had to deal with: criticism.
“There was some miscommunication, and there were some resources that did not immediately engage in the fire, and there were some landowners that were upset,” Tudor said.
“I understand that,” he said. “When landowners see their property burning, there are expectations to see all resources fighting the fire. We can’t always address every individual expectation, be we always try to do the best we can.”
If the terrain wasn’t bad enough – Tudor said some areas were so hazardous that he would not risk the safety of firefighters to try to get hand crews in some places – even the little things firefighters count on, such as cooler temperatures and higher humidity that normally come with darkness, failed to appear.
“This fire burned just as heavily at night as it did during the day,” Tudor said.
Tudor said he watched as the flames climbed over a ridge and swept down into Alamo Canyon, despite the entire area having just received at least six full tanker loads of retardant.
“It was so hot and dry, even the retardant would last only about 10 minutes and the fire would just burn right through it. And 10 minutes isn’t even enough time for the tanker to land, reload and return to the scene.”
Still, Tudor credited the aerial attack on the fire as being critical in containment.
“We’ve spent $1.2 million just in aircraft costs alone on this fire,” he said.
With the long-awaited monsoon rains hopefully within days of arriving, Tudor said it was important people still remain cognizant about fire dangers.
Creating and maintaining defensible space around homes, he said, is the most important thing a resident can do, be it a small lot or large expanse of open range.
“That’s the big thing,” he said, “Be vigilant about the use of fire, and maintain that defensible space.”