Anita Gonzales, a Las Vegas resident and Rio Grande Chapter board member, wrote this account for a national Sierra Club email to raise funds for community members impacted by New Mexico’s devastating fires. You can donate to the Las Vegas Community Foundation’s fire-relief fund here.
As I write this on May 19, 2022, today is Day 44 of the largest fire in New Mexico history. The Hermits Peak Fire began on April 6 with a prescribed burn and combined with the Calf Canyon Fire on about April 22. The combined megafire has now expanded to over 301,000 acres, has over 2100 fire personnel, is only 34% contained, and has evacuation warnings in 4 counties throughout Northeast New Mexico.
My name is Anita Gonzales and I live in Las Vegas, N.M. Las Vegas is a quaint little town of 13,000 that lies along the Gallinas River and is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is the heart of San Miguel County. My family, like so many others has lived here for generations and my story is one of thousands that have been impacted by this fire. San Miguel County borders Mora County and together forms a centuries-old community that has been in existence since before New Mexico was a state and is decedent of indigenous people that have lived in the area since before the United States existed. My family’s own history here dates back at least 7 generations that I can track. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Though my family had to evacuate, I’m back home, in the house my grandfather built. I am writing this with the purpose of lending my voice to others who may not have been so lucky.
When the fire fist started in Las Dispensas it was worrisome. It expanded quick to the neighboring areas and evacuations were done quickly. After about 2 weeks the fire had expanded to about 7,500 acres and was 91% contained. No major property damage had been reported and there seemed hope for recovery. On the morning of April 22, everything changed. I happened to be in a meeting that also had local officials in attendance. They announced that they had to go as there was a new threat and this one was “going to be bad”. By the next day, April 23, the fire had grown to over 42,000 acres and everything magnified. Massive evacuation orders were released, and the fire was growing exponentially, burning tens of thousands of acres each day. Severe weather conditions of extreme heat, high drought, low moisture, and extreme red flag wind days added to the severity of the fire as containment crews were unable to stop the massive beast that was destroying our community one village at a time. You may not be able to find many of these places on a map, but the areas of Las Dispensas, Las Tusas, San Ignacio, Pendaries, Cañoncito, Rociada are all home to many of my friends and their families.
Immediately, my little town of Las Vegas (and surrounding areas) jumped into action to support its neighbors. An evacuation center was started at the old Memorial Middle School building and became a safe haven to those that had nowhere to go. It offered shelter, the Red Cross, a warm meal, government services, and a comforting embrace to any that needed it. The need grew so great so fast that donations by the truckload were pouring in and the donation center needed to expand to a nearby church, the Calvary Chapel, to support the growing traffic flow managed by the Salvation Army. As soon as donations came in, they were going out. Volunteers were jumping in the effort wherever and however they could offering shelter, space for storage and livestock, trucks and trailers to haul belongings and animals, cooking and serving meals, donating goods, donating money, offering professional services. Volunteer firefighter crews and those with equipment remained in the thick of it to protect their homes and help the effort in clearing dozer lines and fire breaks where they could.
I will never forget the first family I met at the evacuation site. They were in a daze and still dirtied with ash and soot. They were a young couple and tried to stay in their home until they were forced out. They had nowhere else to go and the state police had dropped them off at the shelter once they had to leave as they needed clothes and a place to stay. Tears were flowing as they relayed, they had just invested everything they had into their home a few months earlier and even their car was not working. What were they going to do and where were they going to go? This next week more communities had been engulfed by the flames and more evacuation orders came…Gallinas, El Porvenir, Manuelitas, Penasco Blanco, Ledoux, Maestas Canyon, Carmen, Tierra Monte, Maestas Canyon, Sapello, Buena Vista, Puertocito, Rito Cebolla. Our small town looked post-apocalyptic with brown dark skies and covered in a smoky haze. Then, when the fire had nowhere else to go, it came our way. Although only separated by a few miles, never had I imagined that the fire could get to us.
Side fact: Las Vegas is also home to the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West. Over 200 students from across the world study and live at the Montezuma Castle along with their teachers and staff including three amazing students that we have adopted as part of their getaway family program. The historic castle has been in existence since 1841, rebuilt in 1885, and is now recognized as one of America’s Treasures and is on the list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. Growing up, I was so proud to have a castle in my big backyard as UWC is about 3 road miles away from my house.
As the fire traveled on the south end past Gallinas Canyon it now threatened the area of Hot Springs, Montezuma and was forecasted to travel eastward fast so areas of Los Vigiles, Country Acres, Storrie Lake and my house were all under evacuation orders. I left my house the first time on April 29. As I packed, you could see the fire on the horizon peeking over the castle. Even though, the fire had been on my mind for many days now, once it was my turn, what becomes important enough to evacuate with? Family came over and together we ransacked my house packing a suitcase for myself, for my son, important papers, technology, irreplaceable family photos, we each went through our rooms and packed keepsake items…my son taking his football stuff and me taking my jewelry and remnants from my grandparents including the last saint I had from my great-grandma’s altar. When all was said and done, I had my Rav 4 packed and our 2nd vehicle was already moved. We were safe. I did a walk through the house taking pictures and video of everything we were leaving behind. When I was alone, the tears started to peek out. But, the need was there to keep it together. My son was scared, and he needed comfort. Before driving away, we checked in with our neighbors to see their plans and lend help where needed. Then we took one last picture with the fire blazing in the background as an emotional goodbye, not sure what was to come.
That night, we became vagabonds and I was alone with my thoughts. We were blessed to have many options of places to go and part of me wondered if I should have stayed amid the smoke to just “be home” and was I overreacting with the threat? That same night, the fire also moved southwest across Johnson Mesa and the communities of Mineral Hill, San Geronimo, San Pablo, and Ojitos Frios were also under emergency evacuation. In one night, the fire jumped by more than 30,000 acres in that direction resulting in midnight knocks at the door and emergency evacuations. The next day, the smoke had died down a little and hundreds more personnel were deployed to the area. So, although under a “Go” order, I returned home solo, everything still packed, but waiting.
While waiting on the south end, the north end was also growing. Crews had been battling the fire in Ledoux as a stronghold to keep it from growing into the community of Mora. There were more evacuations…Morphy Lake, Santiago Creek, Mora, Lucero, Rainsville, Pacheco Village, Monte Aplanado, Abuelo. While my families home base was in Las Vegas, I spent many vacations and time in the areas of Ledoux, Monte Aplanado, and Sawyers Village-the home of my aunt (and family). My aunt is the caretaker of cabins for Sawyers Village at the tip of Monte Aplanado. Electricity and communication had been out in the area since April 22 with road closures and my aunt had chosen to stay behind. On Sunday, April 24 I woke up to emergency alerts for her area. The fire had moved and opening up the fire tracker app was heartbreaking as the entire area of Monte Aplanado was engulfed in a heat signature and still no word. Emotions were high as she was able to make her way to my house. She was forced out in the nick of time with a few personal belongings and her animals in her small jeep. Later, we found out all the homes in her area were gone. The fire burned extremely hot for a few days leaving no chance of salvage. That night was consumed with phone calls and check ins making sure everyone was safe and sharing information and IT support so that neighbors knew where to look for help.
With a shower and a night of rest, we were hoping to permanently be home, but we were evacuated again the morning of May 2. The fire line was holding at Montezuma, but there was a new threat coming from the west end of our property behind Luna Community College. More evacuations were made…. Luna Hill, the NM Behavioral Health Institute, El Llano, Cinder Road, Creston, West Las Vegas, D. Bibb Industrial Area. With fire near in multiple directions and terrible air quality, we packed up to leave again. This time filling up our 2nd vehicle with more items, just in case. I called in family reinforcements to rehome my aunt to Albuquerque, then later Colorado. My little family made my way to another aunt’s house further into town for the night as we were exhausted. Then we moved to Albuquerque for the week. That night was the first night in a few days without a smoke attack, a middle of the night warning, and a somewhat restful sleep.
The time outside of Las Vegas was needed more than I realized. Emotionally and physically, I was tired. So much worry and heartbreak for those in the heart of the fire. Half of Las Vegas was on some evacuation order. I took the time to regroup and catch up on life, work, and other commitments as the rest of the world outside my home was moving on. With the spread of the fire there was now evacuation centers and donation drops in Glorietta, Penasco, Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Santa Rosa housing people and animals. FEMA had mobilized along with the NM National Guard and a support center had been created at the Glorietta Conference Center. We also had time to visit with our UWC students as they too had been evacuated and were being house at Glorietta with nothing more than a go-bag in a foreign country, not knowing if they were able to retrieve their few possessions they had.
I returned to Las Vegas on Mother’s Day and spent the day happy to be in my home. Everything still packed, but home as we were now downgraded to “Set” Status. Life has slowly returned to a new “normal” for us here in Las Vegas. Schools are back in session, the Universities are back, our UWC students were able to get their belongings and ready to go home for the summer, and people have returned to work as able. The guilt sets in as our return to “normal” has meant a crisis for others as the fire continues to spread to the North and the West and what about those that had nothing to return to? How is that “normal”? Evacuations have now expanded to Taos County with Colfax county on the ready as this fire is near the boundary of the recent Cooks Peaks Fire. More evacuation statuses were issued…Romeroville, Bull Canyon, Colonias, Pecos, Cleveland, Holman, El Turquillo, Guadalupita, Chacon, Sierra Bonita, Angostura, Sipapu, La Junta, Tres Ritos.
As people as able to return to their homes, there is a range of what they are coming home to. For some (like me), evacuation ended up being a precaution and we were only gone for a short time. I have a messy house that reeks like a bonfire and piles of items to put back. For others, they have been evacuated for weeks, likely with electricity and water shut down to their homes. Freezers and refrigerators full of rotten food and meat storage will need to be dealt with. Wells, pumps, and infrastructure systems will need to be fixed. Jobs and life turned upside down as they needed to seek long tern refuge somewhere. And then for others, the unimaginable. A return home to nothing but ash and molten rubble. Emotions are raw and different for everyone-optimism, empathy, heartbreak, guilt, denial, grief, sadness, depression. In some areas the fire was selective, only reaching some structures and leaving others alone. In other areas, the fire was determined, but so was the will of the firefighters defending and protecting homes. Then in the rest the fire was non-discriminatory, sending a wave of heat to ravage everything in its path. For weeks, we have stalked Facebook, and many set their alarms to 9AM and 6PM for daily updates and briefings with weather reports in between. Each day waking up checking the fire trackers to see if the fire had grown and hoping for a day with no phone alerts meaning another area was under emergency orders.
The future of the fire is unknown. A good weather day means planes can fly and this beast can be attacked from both the air and the ground. A bad weather day means take cover, because it can go fast in any direction and pray that the containment measures hold. As the fires rage on, we’re losing generations of culture, generations of existence — their herds, their crops, their ranching way of life is gone. People are returning to barren land to salvage. It will be hard, if not impossible, for many to rebuild. To date, over 600 structures have been lost with many more unaccounted and over 15,000 homes have been evacuated and counting. Each community evacuated means another hit to the Norte.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that these fires are having. On communities, on culture, and on our environment. We’re still dealing with terrible air quality and smoke. Water quality warnings have been issued to most of the affected areas. There’s a huge loss of livestock, green space, and so much more. In many rural areas, we’re looking at a huge loss of population – a housing crisis, inadequate supplies to rebuild, and a reduced workforce. I can’t help but wonder whether folks will ever return back to our area after being displaced. They say memories don’t burn, but the things and places that trigger these memories do.
These wildfires are truly unprecedented. With each year that passes, fire season stretches earlier into the spring and later into the winter. As we experience the worst drought in at least 1,200 years, experts are cautioning that more fires could be on the horizon. We must cultivate resilience as the climate crisis’ impacts continue to grow. Our planet is hurting, and we must listen!
For now, I’m focused on relief. I’m working with local efforts that have set up evacuation centers and supply centers. All I can do is stay focused on supporting my community, and the communities across our state who are experiencing these huge losses. I am ever so grateful for the thousands of volunteers, donors, fire personnel, and first responders that have joined with us in the fight for our precious homeland. There are so many unsung community heroes including many that have lost everything themselves. For us in Northern New Mexico, our hearts are with our querencia (a place where one draws inspiration or strength from,” or “the place where one feels most comfortable and true). We are forged from resilient people, and we are stronger together. As you read this, remember our communities, and pray for our people and our way of life.