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Thursday, August 26, 2004

Man who started N.M. fire leaves note, kills himself

MAYHILL, N.M. (AP) — A man who started a wildfire in the Sacramento Mountains that has burned more than 9,500 acres and destroyed at least 20 structures committed suicide because he couldn't live with what happened, a sheriff said Thursday.

The man wrote a suicide note and then shot himself in the head Wednesday night in a home in La Luz, a town 25 miles west of Mayhill, according to the Otero County sheriff's office. It wasn't immediately known who lived at that house.

"He felt that he couldn't live with what happened," Sheriff John Lee said.

The sheriff did not release the contents of the letter said the man, whom he identified as William Myers, didn't know whether it was a cigarette or a spark from his vehicle that started the fire Tuesday.

"He did know he caused it," Lee said.

Lee said authorities had questioned Myers about the fire several times but didn't have enough evidence to arrest him.

The fire burned a swath through the southern New Mexico mountains Wednesday, jumping from 800 acres to 9,500 acres in a day as winds gusted up to 60 mph. On Thursday, the flames jumped north across U.S. 82, the main road through Mayhill.

Hundreds of residents around Mayhill were urged to leave but some stayed, said Joe Garcia, spokesman for the Lincoln National Forest. The governor's office declared a state of emergency Thursday.

"Now we have another tragedy on top of a tragedy," Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley said. "The fact is, we know this gentleman. He lived in Wills Canyon. He was a very honorable and honest man and he just felt he could not face his family and friends with what happened."

Myers, a hunter and avid outdoorsman, had been living in Wills Canyon for 2.50 years and was renovating a house for a neighbor, Richard Baish. Myers also lived at the house.

Baish said the fire started on a ridge on his property. He said he was with U.S. Forest Service investigators Wednesday when they found cigarette butts at the site.

Baish said Myers appeared agitated Tuesday night and argued with his girlfriend, who wanted to go back to Myers' home to get her belongings. Myers wanted to leave the area immediately, according to Baish, who said he assumed Myers was worried about the fire.

"I think he did this because he was sorry for what happened ... He just couldn't accept that he negligently had been responsible," Baish said Thursday about Myers committing suicide.

Crews were sent to New Mexico from a largely contained blaze in southern Arizona that charred 38,000 acres of dry grass and oak brush.

Rick Hartigan of the Forest Service said windy conditions and erratic fire movement made Wednesday "a horrendous day," as the New Mexico fire ballooned and slurry planes were grounded because of wind.

Forestry officials said the 20 structures that burned were west of Mayhill, a town of about 250 people 100 miles north of El Paso, Texas. They said at least two were homes.

Fifteen minutes after being advised to leave, 79-year-old Mayhill resident Hazel Perry grabbed some clothes, makeup and photos.

"The fire was licking up over the top of the mountain there," Perry said. She feared her home was gone. "I just can't bring myself to accept it."

David Williams, who lives southwest of Mayhill, had bloodshot eyes and a red face after he and 18 firefighters took cover in a burned out area near his home as the fire raged out of control.

"I knew for a fact this was the one I had been expecting for 10 years," Williams said. "We thought we had it under control ... then it exploded, a real firestorm."

Decreased wind in Arizona allowed firefighters to make headway against the blaze there, which was 75% contained Thursday. The blaze burned one home and two barns. No injuries were reported.

The fire, which began Monday in the Coronado National Forest, stalled about 1.50 miles from Huachuca City. The cause was unknown.

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