Evacuations and Uncertainty

Northeastern New Mexico fires wipe out roughly 200 structures in San Miguel County, undetermined number in Mora County

Twice in two weeks.

Wildfires had driven Jenna Luna and her family from their home just outside Rociada for the second time last Thursday night—and they were certain they’d lose the structure, which sits in the community of Pendaries.

“The message they gave us on Thursday night was, ‘If you stay you will die, basically. This is a totally different situation than the last one. You need to get out,’” Luna tells SFR of fire officials’ dire warning to residents of the small community now engulfed by the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires. As of publication time, the two blazes, which combined last week amid high winds and brittle-dry conditions, had chewed up 63,720 acres and was 33% contained.

The first evacuation came on April 11, as the Hermits Peak Fire threatened their home. Luna, her husband, two young children, two dogs and a cat loaded into their vehicles and moved into a trailer on the Mora National Fish Hatchery’s property, where her husband works.

They were allowed to come home a week later as crews gained some containment over the fire.

But the brutal winds drove the flames ever closer, forcing them out again.

Like so many families living in northeastern New Mexico, the uncertainty roiled Luna. As the state’s largest wildfire continues to batter the rural communities of San Miguel and Mora Counties, more evacuations and the subsequent uncertainty that comes with them appear likely, with heavy gusts once again forecast over the next two days.

Another Rociada resident, Danelle Smith. also evacuated last Friday. She remembers the “wind that day, the 22nd: That was what really blew that fire over. I mean it was just, the winds were just epic.”

A longtime resident of the region, Smith couldn’t believe how quickly the fire moved from its initial location to her neighborhood. “That is such a long way from our house over to Evergreen Valley,” Smith tells SFR. “We were astounded that the wind could actually drive the fire” that far.

Smith recalls seeing the bright flames and dense smoke from both the two fires approaching her property before she evacuated. “The fire just came up over the top of the hill above the east side just like in a wall of flames and came down and just, you know, took out, took out our house.”

That was Friday, or as Smith points out, Earth Day.

Mora County Commission Chair Veronica Serna spent her day trying to get food and water to residents who are staying in their homes. The Cooks Peak Fire, at 55,172 acres and 33% containment, stands to grow in the coming days

State Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, who was delivering food with Serna to his constituents, tells SFR: “The forecast is dire.” With winds expected to reach 70 mph over the next 48 hours, the next couple of days are critical for Mora County, he says.

“They’re worried about their animals in their homes,” Serna says of those residents who aren’t evacuating, or “because they can’t afford to be gone for too long, because they run out of financial resources.”

Serna says the impact on families is already devastating.

“There was one family that I saw that…had collected wood that they thought they were going to sell for the next two or three years,” she says. “The entire pile was ashes.”

She points to the number of families that depend on livestock to make a living—she already heard reports of animals being lost to the fire.

The extent of damage to buildings in Mora County is unknown because the fire is still active, Serna says. Though she’s confirmed that some structures have been lost.

To the south, San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley estimates that of the 200 structures that were destroyed, roughly 120 were homes and businesses. The others were out buildings.

Ansley says the county assessed 800 structures for damage. Those buildings make up the majority of structures in San Miguel County that authorities believe to have been affected by the fires.

“They’re trying to get containment, but even if it’s contained, there’s still a lot of unburned fuels within that footprint, so shifts in winds are always going to be a concern until we get this fire completely under control,” Ansley tells SFR.

Officials opened an evacuation center at Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas almost three weeks ago after a Las Dispensas prescribed burn got out of control and sparked the Hermits Peak Fire. Ansley says the facility is still accepting people.

Questions about the timing of the prescribed burn have preoccupied the minds of area residents. They’ve pointed to the high winds that caused the Forest Service burn to escape and caused the blazes to be so devastating.

“Who made the decision to set that fire?” asks Smith.

Luna and her family eventually found a place to stay in Angel Fire, but she tells SFR that the nearby Cooks Peak Fire is exacerbating her already high stress levels. “If we have to evacuate one more time…”

Luna was able to confirm that the gravel driveway surrounding her home spared it. But for many families in San Miguel and Mora Counties, there remains uncertainty about whether their homes are still standing.

“I felt like, in a weird way, lucky that we knew ours was gone because then we could begin to get our minds around, OK, well now we have to move on without anything,” says Smith.

She points to the numerous small communities that dot the rural landscape, saying many families have lived on the land for generations and many don’t have insurance. “What do you do? How do you rebuild?”

After her home burned, Smith received a call from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking what she could do to help. Smith had a simple request: “Get the government to stop starting controlled burns at this time of year.”

New Mexico continues its battle against an early fire season. To the west, the Cerro Pelado Fire, which is at 5% containment, has burned 6,119 acres and three homes.

During a Thursday morning update, Jayson Coil, operations section chief with Southwest Incident Area Team 1, said: “On the northeast side of the fire, so to the southwest of Ledeux, is the area of most concern.

“That fire did get across one of our lines last night,” Coil said. “We are working to control that fire’s edge where it got across that line, but if it continues to move to the northeast, it has the potential of impacting structures and the next two days of weather are unfavorable.”

On Tuesday, Santa Fe County issued an ordinance imposing restrictions on open fires, smoking and other ignition sources to mitigate fire risk under the current conditions.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Jayson Coil’s name.

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