Caverns employees react to Loop Fire scenario

CARLSBAD — It was business as usual on Wednesday night at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but there is view different.

A fire that started at the park Monday and deemed 70 percent contained by officials has scarred and blackened the landscape leading up to the park’s Visitor Center and bat flight amphitheater.

Over 30,000 acres was burned in the fire.

The Visitor Center reopened Thursday and tours into the world-renowned cavern resumed.

“I’m looking from my office window and I see a tour bus and a steady flow of people going into the natural entrance of the cave,” said Paula Bauer, park management assistant.

“It looks desolate out there,” said Paula Bauer, park management assistant. “I had one person say, ‘Wow, It looks like the moon out there.’ The staff’s reaction has ranged from shock, sadness and heartache when they came to work this morning and saw the burned areas.”

Bauer said although short notice was given Wednesday afternoon that the nightly bat flight would be held that night; park rangers reported about 150 people attended the nightly event.

“The staff said the reaction from visitors attending the bat flight was that they were glad the park had reopened,” she said. “Many were excited and grateful. Some mentioned that they specifically stayed in Carlsbad an extra day in the hope the park would be reopened.

Bauer said during the bat flight program Wednesday night a firefighter happened to walk into the area and the crowd stood up and

applauded him.

Park Superintendent John Benjamin said as firefighters from around the country that came to the park to help fight the fire began demobilize Thursday and finally had a day off, many came back to the park before heading off to their next assignment to see the caverns they worked so hard to protect.

“They are our guests and they are allowed into the cavern for free,” Benjamin said, expressing again his gratitude for the job they did.

Carlsbad Caverns Guadalupe Mountains Bookstore inside the Visitor Center also expressed its thanks. Firefighters visiting the caverns each received a free audio guide and a free book about the Carlsbad Caverns, plus a 15 percent discount on anything they chose to buy.

Bauer said that according to reports from rangers involved in the bat flight program, from as far as they can tell, the bats that make their home in the natural entrance of the appear to be unaffected by the fire.

“The bats flew great. They didn’t have a huge number; then again we haven’t had huge numbers of bats all year. The numbers are slim right now, but we are happy that the bats are flying,” Bauer said.

For visitors to the park that had purchased their tickets in advance for the tour of the cavern, but arrived to find the park closed during the fire, they will find a credit on their next credit card statement.

“The park contracts with Reserve America to sell tickets in advance. We notified the company of the fire and that the park was officially closed and all tours were cancelled. The company will automatically credit back the cost of the tickets,” Bauer explained.

Benjamin said he is thankful that the park came through the fire with very little infrastructure damage.

“We are so pleased that we had such wonderful help and support from the surrounding fire departments and the other teams that came from out of state. Many of the local firefighters are volunteers in their departments. They all have regular jobs to go to, but they were here at the park helping to save the structures.”

Benjamin said now that the fire is contained, work begins to assess the ecology situation that has been created by the fire.

He said of major concern is the vegetation that once held the soil together is now gone and the ground is bare. A good, hard rain could create another major problem.

“We have a BEAR (Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation) team coming in to asses the situation we have here. They will give us a scientific opinion of what we need to be worried about. “I have worked with them at other parks where we had a fire. Their assessments were right on the money,” Benjamin said.

While the team is assessing the damage to the park’s ecological system, a fire investigator experienced in wildland fire investigation has been brought in to determine the cause the fire.

“Given the point of origin, I’m thinking the fire was human-caused. If that is determined, we would like to find the human that it and have a word with him,” Benjamin said.

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Loop Fire in Carlsbad Caverns National Park status:

A large number of fire crews were released from the Loop Fire Thursday to be picked up by other fire incidences.

Some fire crews continue to patrol the fire perimeter and mop up any hot spots. There are now very few found, fire officials said.

The transition from the Pecos Zone Fire Management team to park and local control will occur today.

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