It was a summer Josh Ingersoll won’t soon forget.
After a long day of mowing lawns at Brush Ranch River Lodge in the Pecos Canyon, Ingersoll, 27, retired to the music hall, climbed behind his drum set and prepared to bang out some boredom.
Then the juice went out.
Ingersoll stepped outside and what he saw took his breath away and set his heart to racing.
A billowing column of thick black smoke and bright orange flames was snaking its way into the sky from the hillside across the roadway.
It was May 30th and about three in the afternoon.
A power line had just come down and started one of New Mexico’s most devastating blazes and Ingersoll, a rookie volunteer firefighter, was about to be baptized by it.
Ingersoll grabbed his firefighting gear and dashed to the nearby volunteer fire station situated on the far end of the ranch property. There he met Huie Ley, 57, a longtime owner of the Tererro General Store and founding member of the volunteer fire department who was also responding to the blaze. The two men climbed into one of the brush trucks and headed towards the flames.
“Up till then I’d put out a few tree stumps struck by lightning and some little grass fires,” Ingersoll says. “But this was huge and threatening and I was excited to finally be getting some action.”
They found the fire by the roadside was quickly spreading and heading up the hillside devouring the drought parched underbrush and climbing high into the Ponderosa pines.
“There were burning embers falling from the sky and when they hit the ground they’d started these perfect little rings of fire,” Ingersoll says.
Using a hefty hoe and a McLeod rake tool, Ingersoll set to cutting a fire line while working his way up the mountainside, raking furiously to keep ahead of the blaze.
The fire line was working, but when he got to the top of the steep hillside, his lieutenant, Ronnie Armijo, arrived to tell him it was time to go.
Looking up over the crest of the hill revealed the tops of pines trees exploding in flames that twirled about like a dust devil and reached high into the sky. The smoke had become so thick that Ingersoll was forced to the ground where he could get a breath of fresh air lingering just above the dirt.
That’s when Armijo pointed out how smoke was rising to their rear from the valley floor below and flames were beginning to curl back down behind them.
“We’re going to be trapped,” Armijo told Ingersoll. The two lit out down the mountainside, stumbling and crashing their way down to the slim fire break that the asphalt road below offered.
As they hit bottom, the fire began to fully engulf their position. Ingersoll stood mesmerized by the wall of swirling flames that roiled up and over his head. Then the fire jumped across the road to ignite the vegetation and trees on the other side.
Through the fog of the smoke and the captivating effect of the flames, Ingersoll could faintly hear the repeated honking of a truck horn far off in the distance.
Then his radio cackled to life and Ingersoll could hear Armijo urging him to get moving.
Ingersoll snapped out of it and took off running, passing Armijo on the road as they made it to the safety of the waiting truck driven by Armijo’s brother, Rudy.
“We got out of there with our lives, just beating it by minutes,” Ingersoll said.
A look out the back of the pickup window showed the canyon engulfed by the fire that just overran the road.
The men fled further into the forest along the canyon’s only road to a wide defensible area at the confluence of Holy Ghost Creek and the Pecos River by the Tererro General Store.
There they regrouped with other volunteer firefighters and then spent the next couple of weeks working side by side with federal wild land firefighters to bring the 10,000-acre blaze under control.
The Tres Lagunas fire forced the closure of the heavily used canyon and its wildly popular recreational areas. Subsequent flooding kept them closed until early August.
But, somewhere amid all the smoke and flames of that fire Josh Ingersoll realized he had found his calling in life.
“That was a true test of the temper of that young man,” Ley says of Ingersoll. “He never batted an eye in the face of that fire and I think it put a little fire in his heart too.”
Ingersoll says he had only joined the volunteer fire department to please his Dad, who had put his son to work with him at the Brush Ranch that summer and wanted them both contributing to the community.
Josh Ingersoll said he wasn’t really interested in fighting fires in the first place but there was no way he could say no to the father who had adopted him and his two sisters as orphaned infants from their home country of Brazil.
“He saved our lives,” Josh says. “I had to take his back on this.”
Bob Ingersoll, a general contractor out of Albuquerque, was made manager of the resort (and its miles of prime fishing holes stocked with trophy class trout) after he helped the new owners of the Brush Ranch restore and upgrade all the buildings years earlier.
Josh Ingersoll was your typical young man with an eye for girls, an interest in music and surfing, whose last job was working at a radio station in Albuquerque and playing drums with garage bands on the side.
But the Tres Lagunas fire seems to have changed all that.
Earlier this month, after months of studying and training, Ingersoll took his Firefighters 1 Certification Exam as the next step in his quest to become a professional firefighter. He wants to work in Hawaii someday.
Meanwhile, Brush Ranch remains closed in the wake of post fire flooding that devastated the property and wiped out its fishing holes and most of the trout in the river.
Karl Moffatt is a longtime New Mexico journalist and avid outdoorsman whose many stories and photos can be seen at www.outdoorsnewmexico.com.