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Rociada rancher Jerry Gomez was busy Tuesday morning preparing to get a rig to Roswell to pick up a load of hay for the cattle, some with burned hair, that he has found alive on his fire-ravaged property.
Of the 200 head of black Angus and red Angus stock on the ranch, Gomez has so far found 140 survivors, including calves.
“We are 140 to the good,” he said during a phone interview. “We are gaining ground.”
As the Calf Canyon/ Hermits Peak Fire continues to rage near and around Las Vegas, New Mexico, residents such as Gomez are trying to salvage what they can while they can. Others are digging in and staying put as long as they are able and still others, forced out by smoke or the loss of homes, have retreated to safer ground.
For Gomez, the search continues for more cattle, as well as several horses.
“We haven’t found any horses,” Gomez, 65, said. “We have checked the water sources and found no tracks. Fences are down everywhere. We still got a lot of ground to cover.”
Gomez, who also operates an excavation company, said he managed to get 10 pieces of heavy equipment – including dump trucks, a backhoe, graders, a roller and an excavator – to a safer place.
But other equipment – including a loader, a dozer, two rollers and a huge compressor – was lost in the fire.
“Everything with aluminum just melted,” he said.
The fire also destroyed Gomez’s house, garage, barn, saddle house and saddles. But he remains stubbornly proactive.
“We are doing good,” he said. “We are doing our best.”
The Hermits Peak Fire, which started April 6, and the Calf Canyon Fire, which started about two weeks later, soon combined forces and, urged on by strong winds, show no sign of backing down. The fires slow down when the winds let up, but come back with renewed fury when the winds cut loose.
“It’s looking pretty tough today,” ranch hand and Western painter Gary Morton said Tuesday as he got fuel at a store in Sapello. Morton is caretaker for 300 acres in Las Tusas, a few miles west of Sapello. “That fire is still trying to come off the ridge south of me and the wind is predicted to be out of the south at 60 mph today.”
Morton evacuated his house April 22 and went to Las Vegas. But he regretted leaving, and returned to Las Tusas and the five horses he cares for there a week later.
“My truck is loaded and I can leave in five minutes,” he said. “But I’m going to stay as long as I can. I have confidence in these firefighters. They have the wisdom to know when to sit and watch, and when to stand and fight.”
The house that rancher Randy Huston shares with his wife is in the Rociada Valley, in the heart of the inferno. But his ranch is near Santa Rosa and it is there he has been sitting out the fire since he, his wife, two dogs and two horses evacuated Rociada on April 21.
The last he heard, his house was still standing.
“But I don’t really know now,” he said Tuesday. “I have not heard any new reports. I am just hoping things are OK.”
Huston is an award-winning Western singer-songwriter, as well as a rancher. He said he has his best guitar with him, but a fiddle and a “really good mandolin” are still at his Rociada residence.
On Tuesday, he drove to Tucumcari to pick up the two dogs he had left there and take them to the ranch near Santa Rosa. And then he was going to drive to just east of Las Vegas and get the two horses he left there.
“This will make the sixth time I’ve moved the horses,” he said.
Rain and miracles
Teddi Swidinsky, a surgeon, who keeps rescue animals – six horses, seven dogs, five cats – on her 64-acre property east of Las Vegas, near the municipal airport, said she can’t see nearby mountains because the smoke from the fires is so thick.
“The smoke is bad, but I’m OK,” she said. “The fire has moved toward town (Las Vegas) and is burning behind Storrie Lake. The (firefighters) are holding it at bay there. What’s burning now is southwest of town.”
But she realizes that the difference between safety and danger depends on which way the wind is blowing.
“The winds change direction in the middle of the day,” she said. “I do have a plan to evacuate the horses, the dogs and the cats to a ranch in Clovis if I have to.”
Meg Sandoval had to leave her 19-year-old cat, Jinx, behind when she fled the fire that burned her double-wide trailer in Rociada. She had been staying in Las Vegas, waiting for an opportunity to return to her home and search for her cat. But smoke from the fires was so bad this past weekend that Sandoval moved to a hotel in Raton.
“I have a room lined up until Sunday morning,” Sandoval said Tuesday. “This fire is a monster. But I’m hoping we’ve got cooler weather and rain coming.”
She’ll go back to look for Jinx when she’s allowed to do so. She knows it will be a miracle if the cat survived, but a miracle is what she’s counting on.
The fires forced retired wildlife manager Cyn Palmer, 61, out of her home between Pendaries and Rociada, but she has been reluctant to leave the Las Vegas area she has called home for three years.
First, she stayed with a friend in Mora. When the fires made Mora unsafe, she moved to an RV that belongs to friends and was parked in a pasture east of Las Vegas. However, the friends evacuated and took the RV with them.
On Sunday night, Palmer stayed in her car on private land between Las Vegas and Santa Fe. But, then, overcome by smoke, fatigue and migraine headaches, she drove to Albuquerque to be with family and friends.
“I took in tons of smoke helping friends pack and evacuate,” Palmer said. “I pushed myself beyond the limits with the smoke. My lungs and esophagus have had it.”
Palmer planned to go to urgent care in Albuquerque to get her “scalded lungs” tended to. But, after that, she intends to get back as close to the fire and the people it threatens as she can.
“I am going to get a fire extinguisher and a shovel, and head back up to Glorieta, Santa Fe or Taos,” she said. “It was so hard to leave Las Vegas. So many people who are important to me live there. I personally know 18 persons who have lost their homes. I don’t want to just sit in Albuquerque and watch TV or read a book. I want to be able to be where I can help my community.”