The combined Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires burn north of Las Vegas on Saturday. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)
Caught between three wildfires, Adam Torres and his mother, Josephine, sped east on an empty northern New Mexico highway on Saturday afternoon, allowing themselves a breather only when towering pillars of smoke were finally in their rearview mirrors.
They stopped their caravan of trucks and a trailer carrying four horses, 20 chickens and a cat, plus clothes stuffed in trash bags and other belongings, to make sure everything was secure. It was their final trek out of their ranch near Guadalupita in Mora County to rescue precious items and animals.
“It’s been stressful, like, the whole time, honestly,” 18-year-old Adam Torres said.
With the ranch within several miles of the fire, they did not know what they’d encounter when they returned. They’ve never seen anything like it, they said.
The fires the family fled all sparked in a 24-hour period and quickly tore through a combined 100,000 acres of picturesque meadows, villages and forests. About 30 pronghorn antelope could be seen Saturday crossing the highway away from the blazes. The herd was at least the second seen running down a mesa in front of a pillar of smoke, according to a Taos County sheriff’s deputy.
The fires burned Saturday on either side of the Torres caravan, which was headed west on N.M. 120 toward Wagon Mound. On the south side, the combined Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire destroyed structures and burned, as of Sunday evening, 54,000 acres. On the north, the Cooks Peak fire had taken another 50,000 acres of its own.
Both are already among the 20 biggest fires in New Mexico history, according to the Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency fire-response office.
The wildfires were just three of 20 burning Saturday in 16 of 33 counties in New Mexico.
This weekend, the state was the nation’s epicenter for forest fires, ones that are breaking out earlier and at a greater rate than normal. A map of the nation’s forest fires compiled by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group shows New Mexico basically buried in icons noting active fires, along with a handful in Arizona and other Southwest states.
New Mexico in April typically averages a little more than six fires that burn more than 100 acres, according to the SWCC.
“Yesterday, we experienced a combination of conditions that quite frankly is unprecedented in New Mexico history,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a briefing Saturday afternoon. “It is only April, and yet we are seeing fire spread that we’ve only ever seen in this state… in late May and June. So our risk season is incredibly and dangerously early.”
On Friday, meteorologists warned of “catastrophic” and “dire” windy and dry conditions, and they were right. Wind gusts exceeded 70 mph in northern New Mexico, and a megadrought — which scientists say is a byproduct of climate change — left forests and grasslands incredibly dry and quick to burn.
Even before Friday, the United States had seen an above-average fire season already. This year’s forest fire season has been “above average,” according to the National Weather Service, with 19,774 counted as of April 21. The 10-year average at that date is 13,720.
Just because the fires are starting early doesn’t mean the fire season will be shorter, either, Lujan Grisham said.
“We have a longer, more dramatic and quite frankly more dangerous significant fire season ahead of us,” she said.
The fires ripped through a northeast swath of the Santa Fe National Forest, about an hour north of Las Vegas. In the process, they destroyed an estimated 200 structures.
Eric Maestas believes one of those is his family home of more than 40 years, near Cleveland, New Mexico, northwest of Mora. He said his neighbors told him the house was gone, though he was still awaiting official word.
He and his elderly parents and sibling evacuated the home Friday, after getting notice from the sheriff’s office that it was time. The area around Mora has since lost electricity, and gas stations are closed.
“Everybody was panicking. They shut down all the electricity. They shut down all the cell phones. There was nothing. People were going crazy,” Maestas told Source New Mexico. “They shut down all the stores. And everybody was fighting to get gas and get out of there. It was pretty crazy.”
Maestas said he can’t recall ever seeing a fire build itself so quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, carried by high winds. Cañoncito Creek ran dry last year, he said.
“The river that runs through our property never went dry. Last year it did, and all the fish died,” he said.
He spoke briefly to Source New Mexico as he left an evacuation shelter in a Las Vegas middle school gymnasium. He carried a box of food and water along with a new pair of slippers and stuffed it in a small sedan to bring to a campsite where he is staying temporarily, he said. His parents are elderly, and his dad is on oxygen.
“The smoke was, like, very intense there for like a couple of days, even before it reached us,” he said. “But it’s fine. We’re all alive.”
More photos below from the fires in Northern New Mexico:
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