Students fleeing from wildfires hold on to what little normal is left

United World College students stayed six to a room in Glorieta disaster recovery center

By: - May 24, 2022 5:00 am

An American Red Cross vehicle shown outside the disaster recovery center in Glorieta on Friday, May 20. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

In the dining area of the disaster recovery center in Glorieta on Friday, Amory Ling and other students from United World College were carrying on an old unofficial student-run tradition: At the end of the school year, everyone buys their country’s flag, and then writes messages on each other’s flags.

It’s personally important to Ling because she likes writing things to people. She got the flag of Boston, her hometown, for every one of her close friends. On each one, she wrote a special note to them.

“It’s a nice memento to have,” she said. Ling graduated on Saturday and plans to study civil engineering and architecture.

On top of dealing with the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire, which has become the largest in New Mexico history, people staying at the center in Glorieta have been living six people in a single room, Ling said.

As of Tuesday, May 24, at 7 a.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire had grown to over 311,000 acres.

It was 41% contained.

That eliminates the possibility of social distancing and therefore increases the risk of spreading coronavirus.

The center also does not require staff or evacuees to wear masks. When Source New Mexico visited the center on Friday, Red Cross workers consistently wore masks, but state and FEMA workers did not.

That contradicts the New Mexico Department of Health’s public health order for the COVID-19 pandemic, which recommends masking and social distancing in congregate settings like hospitals, nursing homes and prisons.

What’s more, we did not observe any coordinated effort to ventilate or filter the indoor air. Doors and windows were shut, and we did not see any portable air filtration systems like those installed at the Las Vegas disaster recovery center, about a 40-minute drive east.

As of Monday night, Travis Martinez, the spokesperson for the state’s Emergency Operations Center, had not provided the latest total case counts for either of the centers.

But all evidence indicates that cases and hospitalizations are surging throughout most of New Mexico and the United States. As of Monday, nearly all New Mexico residents were living in areas with high levels of community spread of coronavirus, according to the CDC.

Department of Health spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter has not yet responded to a question about what efforts DOH is taking to educate the public and emergency management officials on the importance of air filtration as a means of protecting the health and safety of evacuees during the wildfires.

Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of catching COVID-19, studies show, and even short-term exposure to particles from wildfire smoke was documented to have increased COVID-19 cases and deaths during the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, California and Washington.

DOH has also yet to answer a question about whether DOH officials are doing any kind of research into whether the current wildfires are contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that as of Thursday, there had been at least 67 positive cases at the Glorieta center since it opened, and six active cases.

Some of those positive cases include United World College students who were staying there, Ling said.

She said she is still concerned about staying safe from COVID-19, and that she wears a mask when she goes anywhere outside of campus.

She felt safe at school because she is boosted and considers other students to be in her “bubble,” but said at the disaster recovery center, there have been many evacuees with whom she has never had contact before.

“I definitely like to put a mask on and make sure I’m being careful and everything and because my family is visiting for graduation and my grandparents are coming and I don’t want to give anything to them,” Ling said. “I will definitely still be careful, but I think now I’m a lot more lenient than I used to be, just because I feel like most people are vaccinated and — I don’t know, I feel like we’ve just gotten used to having COVID being a thing.”

The disaster recovery center in Glorieta is located at Glorieta Adventure Camps, a Christian summer camp. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

When the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire started in April, about 250 students originally evacuated to nearby Highlands University, but had to relocate again to Glorieta, where they stayed for nearly three weeks before graduating on Saturday, Ling said.

United World College students fled from another wildfire in 2021, she said, but that was different because they could see it very close to campus and it was much smaller than the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire.

That led the students to believe that when they were evacuated this time, “Oh it’ll be a weekend — it’ll be a week at most,” she said.

It was disheartening when they found out they would be spending the rest of their school year at the disaster recovery center in Glorieta, Ling said. Fortunately though, the campus had been clear and each day students had been returning to pack up their belongings, she said.

What has surprised her is how resilient everyone is and how quickly they can adapt, even though none of them expected to be here. The students took their final exams while staying at the disaster recovery center in Glorieta, Ling said.

“Obviously this is not an ideal circumstance but we’re all very lucky to have a place to go, because I know a lot of families and other people who are local here are not as fortunate because their homes and lives have been affected by the fire, which is really really sad,” she said.

The students gave each other the flags on Friday, the night before graduation. It’s important for the tradition to keep going, Ling said, because none of the students expected to be where they were.

“We don’t get the same amount of closure — and end — to the year, that we normally would, so I think all of us are trying really hard to preserve some kind of normalcy during this time,” Ling said. “No matter where we are, I would have done it anyway, because it’s the end of the year.”

This is the second story in a series on wildfires and coronavirus. Find the next article on our homepage tomorrow. Find part one here.
FEMA workers were stationed along a road outside the dining area at the disaster recovery center in Glorieta. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.