In the early hours of Tuesday morning, a fire broke out in Mountainair that destroyed half a block of buildings, including three businesses.
No one was hurt in the fire, according to authorities. It destroyed three businesses, a barber shop, the Mountainair Emporium and Uncle Walter’s.
As rumors of arson fly through the community, The Independent has not had official confirmation that arson is suspected, but at least one town councilor thinks it is a possibility.
Mountainair Fire Chief Philip Nelson said Tuesday morning that crews were still working on putting out the fire. “We’re still working on it now and will still be investigating,” Nelson said, adding that the cause of the fire isn’t yet known.
Nelson said the buildings had shared walls, but a break between an apartment building and the next building allowed firefighters to contain the blaze, which continued burning in basements into the day Tuesday.
Mayor Chester Riley said the investigation would be conducted by the state fire marshal. “We can’t say it’s arson or anything else,” Riley said, adding, “Everybody got clear—no problem as far as human lives.”
Peter Nieto is a town councilor in Mountainair and said that while he agrees that no determination can be made yet as to the fire’s cause, “I strongly believe that it’s going to be arson.”
Nieto said he thinks it is “a very big coincidence” that there were two break-ins the same night, and said that a call came in on the fire while one of the break-ins was being investigated. “The timing on that seems as if it’s a distraction,” he said, adding, “Obviously, the police and fire departments will tell us what caused the fire.”
Nieto said his fear is that the burned buildings won’t be rebuilt. “The only word to describe it is devastating,” he said. “Half of our town is gone. I spent my teenage years at the payphone right on front of that building. … Now it’s all gone. … And it’s not only me, it’s everyone in Mountainair.”
Nieto said 2016 “was not good to the town of Mountainair.” He cited the closing of the town’s only grocery store, “multiple break-ins,” and an armed robbery at Mountainair Meds & More.
“It’s very scary to people,” Nieto said. “We have to come together as a town and work together, and figure this out.”
Mountainair Police Chief Robert Chung did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at [email protected]