Viola Gonzales-Avant stepped outside her home last week, into the still-cool evening air and noticed some lights on the ridge to the east of her home in Pecos. She didn’t recognize the lights on the hill that stood out against the dark wilderness of the Pecos River Valley.
It then dawned on her, the lights weren’t from a home or car.
“When you can see flames at night, that’s the big eye opener,” Gonzales-Avant tells SFR, standing next to the hand-painted sign thanking firefighters for their work and hanging from a metal gate spun open for drivers on NM Highway 50 to see.
Gonzales-Avant, like almost every Northern New Mexican, has kept a close eye on the fires for the last month, but it seemed distant. When flames crested the ridge, the fire’s proximity became much more apparent . Evacuations in Bull Canyon and Cow Creek, areas she’s very familiar with, are less than 5 miles from her home.
The woman who was raised in the Pecos community wanted to show her appreciation for the firefighters working 12-hour shifts, protecting her childhood home, where she still lives. “My heart is here,” Gonzales-Avant says on a hot afternoon, monitoring the smoke hanging thick on the horizon with a pair of binoculars. “We need to bear witness to what is going on.”
Over the weekend, emergency managers upgraded the evacuation statuses for the larger Pecos community. Authorities told residents of upper Pecos River Valley—from Holy Ghost to Lower La Posada—to evacuate, while the village proper was elevated to “set” status.
Just west across the county line, one area in Santa Fe County was put in “go” status. The Santa Fe County Sheriff asked residents of Upper Dalton Canyon, a narrow, single-access valley, to evacuate.
Officials say things still look good for Santa Fe County, but that could change.
“We are in extreme drought. We have fire behavior and…such dry fuels out there that any little fire can really grow quickly,” says Santa Fe County Fire Chief Jackie Lindsey.
Working with the Sheriff’s Department, emergency managers and fire officials, Lindsey says, “A lot of variables go into deciding who is going to be put into what status.”
Lindsey notes that weather and topography continue to drive the fire, which makes predicting its movement difficult. She encourages all Santa Fe County residents to stay alert of changes to evacuation statuses.
While the fire’s northern expansion has continued to be fastest moving, the southwest flank is still expected to spread. However, Fire Behavior Analyst Stewart Turner has classified that motion as likely “limited.”
Turner said the fire made two runs over the weekend near Colonias Canyon towards Pecos, which he described as the most problematic area. The fire, Turner said in Monday evening’s update, is burning hot in this area and he expects “to see some smoke outta here but I don’t think you’re going to see any growth outside of the containment lines.”
Last week, fire crews were in this area establishing structural protections for homes that had been evacuated.
Two dogs with short, heavy fur pad up to Will Triplett and his fellow crew members from Montana as they break from installing sprinklers and cutting trees near homes east of Pecos.
Triplett’s crew leader pours some water into the head of a shovel for the dogs to drink.
The surrounding trees, like the dogs, are thirsty. In combination with the dry soils that kick up a dust, coating the surrounding vegetation, the piñon, juniper and ponderosa trees are brittle to the touch.
“There’s more moisture content in the lumber at Home Depot in Santa Fe than there is in these trees,” Triplett tells SFR.
Given the extreme dryness in the fuels, Triplett says his team is focusing efforts on protecting structures.
In the event the fire makes it farther west into Santa Fe County or future fires begin during the not-yet-started fire season, officials ask that residents prepare by protecting their homes with defensible spaces and sign up for emergency alerts.
In an effort to prevent more fires from beginning during the fire season, Santa Fe County closed four trail systems—Arroyo del la Piedra Open Space; Little Tesuque Creek Open Space; Rio en Medio Open Space; and Talaya Hill Open Space—following the closure of Santa Fe, Carson and Cibola National Forests.
Find the most up-to-date map of evacuations here.
Residents can sign up for Alert Santa Fe here: smart911.com