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Wildfire evacuations drag on for northern NM residents

William Sandoval and his dogs Copper and Marissa, sit at the evacuation center set up at Peñasco High School on Monday. Sandoval and his dogs from him were forced to leave their home in Chacon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

TAOS – For weeks, Andi Garcia chose to stay at her Guadalupita home to feed sheep, chickens, rabbits and dogs, despite evacuation orders and the wildfire raging nearby.

Electricity has been shut off for at least a week.

Garcia had to haul water for the animals instead of pumping from a well.

But when the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire jumped NM 518 north of Mora on Sunday, she figured it was finally time to leave.

William Sandoval and his dogs Copper and Marissa, sit at the evacuation center set up at Peñasco High School on Monday. Sandoval and his dogs from him were forced to leave their home in Chacon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“You see those big orange clouds, and that’s when you know it’s close,” Garcia said. “It’s ominous.”

Garcia loaded up what animals she could and, along with many other Mora County neighbors displaced by the nation’s largest wildfire, fled to Taos on a dark and smoky road.

Five injured

The fire complex by Monday evening had swelled to 197,371 acres and remained 43% contained.

Fire officials said there were five injuries during the firefight on Monday. Four of the injuries were minor, such as rolled ankles. But Todd Miranda, the medical section chief, said there was one firefighter who was more seriously hurt in the northwest section of the fire and required an ambulance.

It wasn’t clear what happened and no other details were provided.

More than 1,700 people are assigned to the blaze.

Throughout the day on Monday the northeast section of the fire stretched east from NM 518 to close to NM 434. Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst, said embers were flung into the air as far as two miles.

Bladen Breitreiter, the fire meteorologist, said the Las Vegas Municipal Airport recorded at 66 mph like on Monday afternoon.

Breitreiter said a red flag warning that had been in effect for days was set to expire late Monday. And the winds are expected to slow down beginning Thursday and stay calm for several days.

“That will be a breath of fresh air,” Breitreiter said.

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said some people in communities that had been under evacuation orders on the east side of the fire, such as Montezuma, can start to return to their homes. Thousands of homes have been evacuated since the fire started about a month ago.

But Lopez cautioned those who would be returning to their communities. During a fire briefing, he gave the state’s crisis hotline number to those who were given the OK to return.

“Property, it can be rebuilt,” he said. “It’s a trying time. There’s a lot of homes that were destroyed and we want to help you through this.”

repeat moves

Many Mora County residents have had to evacuate more than once.

The towns that are hosting evacuees have been welcoming, said Dale Schaeffer, who has lived in El Oro near Ledoux for more than 20 years.

Dale Schaeffer takes his horse Restless for a walk at a livestock evacuation center set up at the Taos rodeo grounds on Monday. Schaeffer is staying in a camper at the site, along with his dog and horse evacuated from their home de él in El Oro, near Ledoux, because of the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire burning in Mora and San Miguel counties. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

He’s staying in a camper at the Taos County Sheriff’s Posse rodeo arena to be near his horse Inquieta, which translates to restless in Spanish.

Klondike the farm dog helps keep an eye on a dozen horses, mules and ponies. Many belong to Schaeffer’s neighbors.

Schaeffer first went to the Mora rodeo grounds after evacuating his home.

But when the blaze moved closer, it was time to leave again.

“At this point we don’t know what anything is going to look like when we go back there,” he said. “We’re just here until somebody tells us we can come back.”

Schaeffer is keeping a list of friends, neighbors and strangers who have helped him in recent weeks so he can “thank them when this is all over.”

“You know, you get out in the world and everybody’s divisive and people have all their opinions,” he said. “But when this came, that just disappeared, and it was neighbor helping neighbor.”

Life goes on, if at a slightly different pace, for residents who have endured a month of fires.

Juan and Sophia Archuleta left Holman about three weeks ago.

The couple had been looking forward to their grandchildren’s graduation ceremonies at West Las Vegas High School and New Mexico Highlands University. Instead they have found themselves “bouncing around” to Las Vegas, Sipapu and now Taos to avoid the fire.

“It’s been awful,” Juan said.

The Archuletas sold most of their horses and cattle a few years ago. Fire crews had to cut the fence of the landowner that the family had sold their horses to in order to build a fire line.

“I still have a lot of farm equipment,” Juan said. “Hopefully it will still be there when I get back – who knows.”

About 25 miles away at Peñasco High School, water bottles, food and donated clothing line the bleachers.

Cordell Arellano, from Penasco, organizes the loads of supplies at the evacuation center set up at Penasco High School Monday. The food is to feed firefighters battling the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire and those forced to evacuate because of it. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The team overseeing an evacuation shelter in the gymnasium calls the area the “grocery store,” said Red Cross volunteer Emma Empey.

Local volunteers are also feeding firefighters three meals a day.

“We take care of all the beds, but as far as everything else, the community does it all,” Empey said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

FEMA representatives sit under the scoreboards, helping people sort through paperwork and assistance applications.

President Joe Biden last week declared the fires a federal disaster.

The declaration opens up financial assistance for individuals in several counties.

William Sandoval, a Navy veteran from Chacon, has evacuated his mobile home twice because of the fire.

Sandoval’s family has lived in adobe homes on the same property for several generations.

Now he is staying at the Peñasco gym with his small dogs.

“I’ll probably know my fate in three or four days,” Sandoval said. “I’m trying to stay positive.”

The last that Sandoval heard from fire officials, extreme winds had put the blaze on a direct path to his front door.

“Those are our memories,” he said.

The tight-knit communities are doing whatever it takes to support each other, said Davina, a Mora teacher who declined to give her last name.

Davina has been helping out at the Peñasco shelter since school shut down.

“We try to make them as comfortable as possible, especially the kids because we know them on a personal level,” she said. “Whether it’s a student that likes to paint or there’s a favorite snack that they like, we try to get those things for them.”

Back in Taos, Garcia goes to work in town and feeds her animals at the local evacuation center.

The longtime Guadalupita resident knows it may be days or weeks before she can return home.

She checks in with family, like a nephew who is working near Mora with a volunteer fire department.

“They fight real hard,” Garcia said. “I’ve seen my nephew, and he goes out early in the morning and then doesn’t come back until after dark. But you know, we all know each other in these small communities. And so they fight like heck to save their friends’ and neighbors’ places.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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