Editor’s note: Officials said Friday morning that the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is now 270,447 acres and is 30% contained.
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
MANUELITAS – When flaming pinecones fell from the sky on Clayton Quintana’s property in Manuelitas, he knew it was time to flee the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak wildfire.
Dark smoke made it difficult to see the road as he drove away from the farm and ranchland his family has owned since before New Mexico became a state.
“The flames were like a monster,” he said. “It was just unbelievable – like it had a mind of its own.”
Quintana returned the next morning to flames feet away from his front porch, which sits about 20 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
He got to work moving dead trees away from the family homes and flooding farm fields.
The family lost a storage shed, but the rest was spared. Generators kept water pumps and meat-filled refrigerators running when the area lost power.
After torching 60,000 acres in 48 hours – putting the blaze near 260,000 acres – officials expressed gratitude the fire didn’t grow much Thursday despite strong winds.
They were also looking forward to a break in the weather for the weekend.
Todd Abel, operations section chief, said during a Thursday evening briefing that the containment lines held on the east side of the blaze and, despite 30 mph winds, the fire hadn’t made much progress in any direction.
Going forward, Abel said those in the fire’s path can prepare their homes for the worst and give fire crews a head start as they move into the area.
That means clearing pine needles from gutters, setting sprinklers up on the property, raking dead brush or moving timber away from structures.
Makoto Moore, incident meteorologist, said the red flag conditions should dissipate when the winds die off Thursday evening. He said the weekend will be warm and exceptionally dry, but those gusts shouldn’t return.
Dan Pearson, fire behavior analyst, said the winds had kept the fire very active but – due to them coming from the west – gave it no significant growth. He said when those winds die down, the blaze will have the opportunity to move west into forests as dry as the logs sold in supermarkets.
Pearson said the fire is also expected to move north and northeast toward Guadalupita and Ocate Mesa, but crews in the area are ready and waiting. He said the blaze is expected to skirt around one of the closest communities, Chacon, thanks to the “superhuman effort” by fire crews in the area.
Officials seemed cautiously optimistic they had laid a good foundation for the fight ahead.
Meanwhile, the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office asked those residents possibly in the fire’s path to stay vigilant and for those who had evacuated to be patient as they wait for the go-ahead to return home.
Quintana, a former Robertson High School teacher, said he has spent the days since his short-lived evacuation feeding and pumping water for neighbors’ livestock.
Several calves and piglets were born as the fire raged. Neighbors faced the difficult choice of whether to leave for shelters or stay and protect homes.
Some barns and homes burned, while other residents were able to keep the flames away.
“It was so hit or miss. The wind has been so bad it’s even blown away the ash. Everything is just dirt,” Quintana said. “So if we don’t get some vegetation on there soon, if we don’t get a rainfall, it could be bad.”
More residents of San Miguel and Mora counties returned home Thursday as roadblocks opened up, even as the fire marches north.
Reopened roads reveal a checkerboard of burned-out homes contrasted with lush pasture and trees that escaped the fire’s path.
In some areas, bright green blades of grass shoot up where the fire burned low to the ground. But vast swaths of trees have been reduced to matchsticks.
Quintana’s 83-year-old father, Ernie, has spent decades working with federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service to thin trees around his property, build healthy soil and restore the watershed.
He credits that work with saving the family land from the most damaging effects of fire.
“This is a lesson,” Ernie said. “There’s gonna be more fires like this. This climate change, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be very tough.”
Fire officials are still assessing the total damage in San Miguel and Mora counties.
Thousands of residents remain evacuated from their homes.
Manuelita Fresquez’s late husband grew up in a 150-year-old home near Morphy Lake.
The couple met in her hometown of Las Vegas and raised their children with trips to the property.
Fresquez has spent weeks anxiously waiting for N.M. 518 and 94 to open up so she could check on the house.
On Thursday morning, she and her adult daughter Maureen Simington drove down a bumpy dirt road lined with torched trees and fallen rocks.
The home was still standing.
“There used to be a schoolhouse up there,” Fresquez said. “But I’m glad (my husband) isn’t here to see all that has burned.”
The home’s survival allowed Simington to finally breathe a sigh of relief.
“This was my dad’s legacy,” she said. “My mom took care of it, and we’re the next generation to take care of it.”
Scorched trees surround Morphy Lake.
Plumes of smoke mar the view from the state park’s picnic tables and campgrounds.
“These trees, this land, it may never come back,” said Cornelio Romero, who discovered Thursday that his Ledoux home survived the fire.
But some neighbors and relatives weren’t as lucky.
“My nephew is a volunteer firefighter here, and he said he saw things that he never wanted to see in his life,” Romero said. “How will those people rebuild?”
The road into Mora remains closed to non-residents.
Thick smoke has settled throughout the valley as smoke from the blaze flares up west of town.
A large firefighter camp is visible from a roadblock just south of the small village.
More than 1,800 personnel are battling the fire.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.