Inside the evacuation zone, people protect animals, homes and each other

Mora County residents extinguish hotspots, keeping their eyes on the nearby mountain for the massive Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire

By: - April 28, 2022 6:00 am

Dennis Garcia points toward the hotspots that caused bursts of flames near his home on Tuesday, April 26. He and his family assisted fire crews, he said, putting out hotspots and creating a fireline around his property in Peñasco Blanco, New Mexico. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

MORA COUNTY, N.M. — It was like running from a ball of fire when Dennis Garcia finally got into his car and drove away from his property surrounded by flames on Friday. 

He returned the next day, he said, pleading with police to allow him past their road closure so he could check on his livestock. 

He got in.

He chose to stay and take action, turning farm equipment — an old truck, a water tank and some hoses — into what he describes as a “fire attack machine.” Along with his niece Christina Garcia and a family friend Daniel Padilla, the trio created a fire line around their property because they noticed fire crews in the area were too spread out to stop any fires igniting around his home.

“We put out 16 hotspots around here,” Garcia said, pointing to areas surrounding his property in Peñasco Blanco, just north of N.M. Highway 518. “Luckily, they let me in, and we saved a lot of structures.”

Much of his property, including his home and livestock, remained untouched by the fire on Wednesday.

The commitment to protect the community is shared by the hundreds of people who remain in Mora County despite heavy smoke, the nearby wildfire and a mandatory evacuation order.

“If we evacuated, we would have lost all of this by now,” Padilla said. “We had to stay.”

The Hermits Peak Fire started as a prescribed burn in the Santa Fe National Forest that became uncontrollable, according to federal fire officials. It merged with the Calf Canyon fire spread by the heavy winds last week. 

A burn scar from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in Mora County. It’s still unclear how many homes were destroyed. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Federal, state, county and volunteer fire crews are working the massive combo fire. Wednesday, it was reportedly 20% contained and had burned more than 60,000 acres. While fire crews praised the work of creating burn lines, the forecast this week could cause more problems. Winds are picking up and expected to increase in speed until Friday. 

Although the San Miguel Sheriff reopened N.M. Highway 518 on Tuesday to allow people access into Mora, police are still blocking roads into the higher mountains and letting residents in only under special circumstances. The evacuation orders stand.

Police are also cracking down on access by saying they won’t allow people back into the area if they leave, so residents are committed to staying as long as possible, hoping the fire defense lines set up Tuesday will help stop blaze from heading toward their homes. 

While it’s a little unclear exactly how many people remain in the evacuation zone, state Rep. Roger Montoya told Source New Mexico that at least 300 people are still there. That the number is likely higher and could be increasing as more residents want to get back into the rural county to check on family, homes and feed livestock left behind. 

Another way to gauge how many people remain in the evacuated area is through the volunteer aid services delivering food to people. Kristy Wolf is part of the Mora Shot Rangers, a group that formed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to people unable to get to a nearby town. 

“Clinics were booked fully, and it was hard for our elderly residents to even set up appointments,” Wolf said. “So we went to them.”

Now the group is distributing hundreds of meals twice a day to volunteer firefighters and meeting up with people staying home in the mountain villages that line N.M. Highway 434.

Kristy Wolf and Clifford Regensberg deliver food to Caleb Hix on Tuesday, April 26. Hix arrived with a fire team out of Colorado. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Wolf’s phone buzzes throughout the day with text messages and phone calls from people who are out of the county but want to make sure their family member inside the evacuation zone is OK and fed a hot meal. 

Tuesday night, more than 200 meals were distributed. But the list keeps growing, and even more meals were being prepared for the Wednesday morning breakfast delivery.

Wolf and her friend Clifford Regensberg can cross the police lines blocking access to the most rural roads because they have meals to distribute. The pair know the mountain like the back of their hand. “That’s where we used to go swimming,” Wolf points towards a dry acequia. “But that was when we had snow on top of the mountain all year. That hasn’t happened in years.”

They have a list for deliveries but continue to think of more people they should check on. 

Everyone here is either your cousin or your classmate.

– Kristy Wolf, Mora Shot Rangers

Electricity in parts of the region was turned off for safety reasons, though some power lines near the perimeter were restored Wednesday.

Regensberg, who lives just north of Mora, has been without power at home but said he feels safe even with smoke building into the mountains just miles from his backyard. 

There are several ridges the fire would have to cross before it gets to his house, he said.

“So I figured as soon as I’d see the fire on top of either one of those ridges, I’d make an exit and run for it.” That’s why he decided to stay to feed the neighbors’ dogs and cats. “And I feel more comfortable staying at home, actually.”

After a food drop off, Regensberg wants to check on a home about a mile from his house. “I heard they are there,” he said.

There they meet with David Martinez and five of his family members. The house does have a generator for power, but Martinez is keeping an eye on the smoke and said he is ready to go if needed. He is also a wildland firefighter, deployed last week to Jemez to fight the Cerro Pelado Fire. He was forced to protect his home the moment he returned.

“They called me to a fire, but I can’t go, because I want to protect my land, my home,” he said. “I’ve been fighting fires all my life, but it is scary. They already evacuated us. But I mean, I have 14 chihuahuas in these sheds, and then I have four big dogs. So that’s 18 dogs that I have to take care of, and I’m not going to leave them.”

David Martinez stands in front of his house in Mora County on Tuesday, April 26. He wants to protect his home but is prepared to leave with his family and 18 animals. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Animals, pets and livestock are a deep concern for this agricultural community, and many people are asking the Wolf’s team for dog or cat food. 

The parking lot of a feed store in Mora has turned into the de facto supply distribution zone. Elena Olivas and her mom Wanda Salazar are staying in Mora to protect their livestock. 

Olivas, 11, is a 4-H kid and wants to stay as long as possible to protect the livestock. “I have 11 horses over here. I have three pigs, a lamb, a goat. We have all my dad’s cows. He has about 50. We have a lot of animals here.”

The pair showed up to the parking lot to pick up animal feed that was donated to the community and 4-H students who evacuated with their animals.

“We really can’t leave. The food is helpful,” Salazar said after volunteers loaded up several large bags of animal feed in her truck. 

The family did return after fleeing Mora on Friday, a harrowing experience that the young Olivas described. “It was crazy, because early (Friday) morning it had to jump like five mountains before it even got to us.”

She said the smoke and wind caused a fog that made it nearly impossible to see while they packed. As the family headed out, she could see the flames over on top of the nearby peaks. 

“I was about to start crying because of how fast it was taking over everything, like how fast it traveled,” she said.

Ismael Rivera and Brandon Roper unload animal feed in Mora on Tuesday, April 26, while Elana Olivas looks on and Wanda Salazar gives volunteer Victoria Lovato information on how much more food animals in the area need. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Their home was not destroyed, and their livestock are good — for now. The go-bags are ready if needed, especially after seeing the destruction the fire caused in the higher mountains. 

“It’s sad. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And now you go up there. It’s clear, nothing,” Olivas said.

Houses are burned. The mountains are bald. The trees look like toothpicks.

– Elena Olivas, age 11

Wolf’s phone buzzes again, and she takes off with Regensberg to a relative’s house because some more people need food. “How many do they have?” she asks the caller. “Four, and two across from the house. OK we’re on the way.”

When they arrive, Salomon Olivas is on a tractor putting out a hot spot about 100 feet away from the house.

His in-laws are cleaning up their water well that caught fire on Friday. Burn scars are everywhere. The closest one is 5 feet from the backyard porch.

“I left. We all left,” Solomon said. “Now we came back to see what we can do — try to keep the hotspots away and turn them out, and make sure nothing happens again.”

He points to his house down the hill that somehow evaded much of the fire. A clear patch of grass untouched by the flames surrounds his home. He is also preparing to leave again if needed, moving livestock closer to the highway. 

Until then, he remains, and like everyone still inside Mora County, keeps his eyes to the mountain. 

More photos from inside the evacuation zone:

Salomon Olivas stands on his father-in-law’s property after clearing out a burn scar nearby on Tuesday, April 26. In the distance is his home that was spared any fire damage as of Wednesday. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Several dogs at a home in Mora. They owners were absent and the burn scar was several feet away from the home on Tuesday, April 26. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Kristy Wolf and an EMT crew that arrived Tuesday from Colorado give attention to a stray dog that was looking for food and water. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Kristy Wolf talks with Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna about food distribution plans Tuesday morning at Hatcha’s in Mora. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Smoke from the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire picked up in the late afternoon on Tuesday, April 26. Fire crews did burn defense lines to prepare for heavy winds the rest of the week. “Excellent progress in the fire (Tuesday), securing lines in anticipation of high winds,” wrote the federal fire agencies working the fire. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

Buffalo in a field several miles away from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fires in Mora County. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source New Mexico)

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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