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Fire destroys former Blackwater Draw Museum site

Historic murals, Christmas decorations and more than 1,000 acres of grassland were the high-profile victims of a wind-whipped fire Tuesday near the old Eastern New Mexico University football field on U.S. 70.

Portales Fire Chief T. J. Cathey said the blaze likely started in the highway's median, but an exact cause had not been determined late last week.

No injuries were reported.

Wind gusts near 50 mph helped the fire jump the highway and spread east, destroying the former Blackwater Draw Museum building, some outbuildings, the grounds of a Christmas light show...

"And an old abandoned house with a basement," Cathey said. "That house will probably smolder for some time. We doused it with water and it's still smoldering (late last week)."

Cathey said the empty home's basement was full of lumber, which was probably a key fuel source.

"The state fire marshal investigator has been here investigating but we haven't received the final report," Cathey said.

The museum spotlighting the Clovis Man archaeological dig site north of Portales has been on the ENMU campus since 2017. There's nothing salvageable from its former home next door to the football stadium.

Brendan Asher, director of the museum and dig site, said murals on the walls of the old museum probably dated back to when the building opened in 1969.

"There were different depictions of wooly mammoths, bison, a ground sloth," Asher said.

"They were done by local artists. I believe one was done by Shirley East. She passed away recently. She worked at the dig site for years and was also an artist."

Asher said the murals were painted directly on the cinderblock walls of the old museum building, which was the reason they were not part of the 2017 move into Lea Hall.

"There's no way to save those murals," Asher said. "The building is not structurally safe. The fire was hot enough to warp the metal beams."

Wooden display cases and some furniture also remained in the old museum. "Nothing's salvageable," Asher said.

"The university administration is going through the insurance process on the building now. What's to become of it is up to the university."

The former ENMU football stadium was also heavily damaged by the fire.

Clovis businessman Rocky Benard, who bought the field after the new Greyhound Stadium opened on the Portales campus, had been using it for his annual "Glitter and Glow Light Show" at Christmas.

"I seriously doubt we'll have a light show this year," Benard said after assessing the damage early last week.

"We lost over a third of our displays. We lost some equipment but most important is that no one was hurt."

Benard said he was particularly struck by photos an associate took that showed a Christian cross and a large "Seasons Greetings" sign that were seemingly untouched by the blaze.

"It's chilling," Benard said.