Off-duty FFs recalled to help fight N.M. Walmart fire
Clovis Deputy Fire Chief Fay Craigmile said it took firefighters three hours to get the fire knocked down
Eastern New Mexico News
CLOVIS, N.M. — The first reports that Walmart was on fire were received by Clovis Fire Department at 3:37 a.m. Sunday. Six minutes later the first firefighting unit was on scene. Soon after that, "everything we had, literally," was on its way to the region's largest retail outlet, Deputy Fire Chief Fay Craigmile said.
And it was already too late to prevent what she and others have called "significant damage."
"We didn't initially see anything suspicious ... but just the heavy fireload that we saw when we arrived was concerning for us. How hot the fire was and how much it had burned by the time we got there was unusual," she said.
Craigmile said every firefighting agency in the region was summoned to help extinguish the blaze, "even the ones in Texas."
"We recalled all off-duty personnel and what we call a 611 group that lets everyone in a leadership position know they are needed immediately," she said.
Investigators were still assessing damage to the building's structure and its contents late Tuesday morning, but Craigmile said it took almost three hours before firefighters had a "good knockdown" of the fire. "Flareups" continued for an hour more.
Propone tanks in the sporting goods section, tires in the automotive section and various chemicals in the gardening area spurred "a lot of concern" in the initial efforts to contain the blaze, Craigmile said. But no firefighter injuries were reported.
The state fire marshal was notified "in the early hours" due to the size of the fire, she said.
Clovis Fire Chief Mike Nolen said a "fire wall" established by firefighters contained the fire to the south side of the building, but a roof collapsed and damage was heavy in the pharmacy area and inside the automotive area and sporting goods area where the fire appeared to have started.
"With the heat there is potential for structural damage throughout the building, but we won't know until the fire marshal completes their investigation and of course Walmart has people doing building assessment," Nolen said.
"The sprinkler system was working and so that saved the biggest part of the building that we're used to shopping in."
Walmart spokesperson: 'We're grateful'
A Walmart spokesperson on Monday thanked local officials for their quick response to Sunday's fire, but offered little information about the store's future.
"We're grateful to local emergency crews for their quick response to our store," Walmart's Amanda Foster wrote in an email responding to questions from The News.
"There were no injuries to associates or customers, and we're currently assessing building damage. We'll continue working with local authorities and focusing on the well-being of our associates.
"We are working with the concerns of our employees and assessing the situation. We have nothing more to add at this point."
She did not respond to requests for an update on Tuesday morning.
The store, which employs about 400, was closed when the fire was reported, though workers were stocking shelves. The initial reports of fire were reported by people inside the store, Craigmile said.
Nolen said investigators include representatives from the Clovis Fire Department, Clovis police, the New Mexico fire marshal's office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Walmart regional managers.
Clovis Public Works Department employees are also on the scene, Nolen said.
Public Works, Nolen said, had to block drains to prevent water used to fight the fire from draining out of the site. The water, he said, may contain toxic materials that should not leave the scene of the fire. The water kept at the site, he said, will be disposed of at a designated toxic waste site.
The building's interior, he said, is still being ventilated to remove toxic contaminants.
While records for pharmacy customers have been transferred to Walmart's Portales store, Nolen said there is discussion of moving in a "portable pharmacy" to serve customers who may not be able to travel to pick up prescriptions.
Nolen said his department's job was to extinguish the fire.
The aftermath, he said, "We're leaving to the experts."
Walmart associate: 'It was scary'
Wilson Alegria was stocking Walmart's frozen food section when the commotion began around him about 3:30 a.m. Sunday. "All the fire alarms went off, everyone started running toward the exit screaming 'Fire!'" he said.
"It was scary. You could tell all the other employees were pretty shocked."
Alegria said he was one of about 50 Walmart employees working the overnight shift when the fire broke out.
The building was ablaze when emergency responders arrived, according to a news release from Clovis police.
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Police said all the Walmart employees had been accounted for and no injuries had been reported. But the building sustained "significant loss including roof collapse," Clovis Mayor Mike Morris said.
The store was immediately closed and officials said it will remain closed until fire investigators can record the damage. Clovis Walmart officials were directing customers to the Portales Walmart location.
Alegria, who said he recently graduated from Clovis High School, said Sunday afternoon he still didn't know much about what happened.
"Just a big fire in the left corner," he said.
"I saw two workers running toward the exit and my manager ran straight to the fire, then he came back with a couple of people.
"The team leaders and the managers did an absolutely great job helping everybody get out and making sure everybody got out."
After exiting the store, employees gathered in the parking lot where Alegria and others took photos and shot video of the blaze.
He said no one was allowed back in the store after firefighters arrived and he doesn't know the extent of the damage.
No customers were in the store when the fire started, Alegria said. The store closes at 11 p.m. and reopens at 6 a.m. His shift is 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., stocking mostly cleaning supplies and frozen food.
"I just started," he said. "I've been there about a week and a day. This was just crazy."
Alegria said he believes he will be temporarily transferred to the Portales Walmart.
Neighbor heard 'pops' from scene
Bryan Mizelle, who lives close to Walmart off Llano Estacado, said he heard sirens early Sunday morning and could hear what sounded like rain hitting sheet metal.
When he went outside, he said he could see flames.
Jennifer Mizelle, Bryan's wife, said she took her sons to Planet Fitness just west of Prince Street, and from there they could see the fire at Walmart and could hear multiple "pops" from the scene.
A Melrose Fire Department vehicle drove past, she said.
"When the county fire departments and the Cannon fire department, even Bovina and Farwell and all the others, when they responded it helped so much," Craigmile said. "They did a tremendous job to try to save this building."
Area businesses pick up slack
Since the fire, other local businesses reported picking up some of the slack.
Albertson's, Clovis' largest grocery store, has seen more customers than usual since Sunday morning, said Bill Bargeman, the store director.
"We're seeing new customers," Bargeman said. "All of our carts are being used."
He added, "The biggest store in town shut down. Those dollars will be distributed around."
Foote Family Meat Market, which mostly sells beef produced at the Foote Family ranch, opened on Labor Day, even though the store planned to close on Monday, said Megan Foote, the store owner.
Foote said the Labor Day opening was in response to "long lines of customers" at the market on Sunday after the fire.
"We saw a lot of new faces," she said. She said part of the explanation for the new customers is that the market has recently expanded its product line to include "value based" meats at lower prices, instead of focusing exclusively on high-end beef from the Foote Ranch.
In addition, she said, the market is accepting EBT and SNAP customers.
Tina Dziuk, director of Clovis Economic Development, said Tuesday it is difficult to attach numbers to Walmart's impact on the local economy because retail revenue figures for individual businesses are not separated out in gross receipts tax reports from the state.
Walmart, however, is easily the largest retailer in eastern New Mexico, with an estimated 400 workers.
A Walmart website reports that average pay for Walmart employees in New Mexico is $18 per hour.