Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
TIERRA MONTE – Elizabeth Esquibel looked on in helpless resignation at the ashes, twisted metal and charred debris of what had once been her home along N.M. 94, about 20 miles north of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Fire rolling out of the hills behind the house chased her and other family members from here at 3:30 p.m. on April 22.
She knew that, about two hours later, the house had been reduced to smoking rubble. But Tuesday was the first time she had seen the grim remains with her own eyes.
“It’s devastating,” Esquibel, 60, said. “Everything is just gone. It is hard to realize that, at this point in your life, you are literally homeless.”
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is still roaring near Las Vegas.
The northern New Mexico wildfire has grown to 203,920 acres and is 39% contained as of Tuesday evening.
Even as some residents are now able to return to their properties, new evacuations have spread into Taos County.
Officials issued mandatory evacuation orders Monday afternoon for the community of Angostura northwest of Holman.
But the blaze has been beaten back from such communities as Manuelitas, Tierra Monte, Rociada and Pendaries along N.M. 94.
Esquibel and other residents are beginning to come back into the area to assess damages or, if their homes and property were spared, to count their blessings.
There are dark swaths of burned land along either side of N.M. 94, while nearby stretches appear unscathed.
Hills studded with the black skeletons of trees overlook pastures with green or tawny grasses.
Esquibel’s three-bedroom home was on the south side of N.M. 94 between Manuelitas and Tierra Monte, 6½miles west of the highway’s junction with N.M. 518.
“And 18 miles to Walmart (in Las Vegas),” Esquibel said as she gazed at what had been her dream home. “We were going to build a greenhouse and add a bedroom. We had just put new tiles and cabinets in my kitchen.”
The fire consumed a thousand dollars’ worth of lumber stored on the property for the purpose of building the new bedroom.
On Tuesday, Esquibel absorbed her loss in the company of her daughter, Amanda Orozco; Amanda’s husband, Cornelio Sanchez; Amanda’s children, Tatiana, 18, and Ezra Orozco, 5; and Esquibel’s father, John, 84.
The family, using three trucks, managed to get some things out of the house. A new pellet stove, two new mattresses, photographs and other items of sentimental value.
“You get what you can,” Esquibel said.
Turned to powder
Esquibel’s house was not old, not a place that had been passed down through generations, as are many homes in this part of New Mexico.
She grew up in Las Vegas, New Mexico, but moved with her husband and Amanda to Denton, Texas, about 35 years ago.
In 1994, the family came back to New Mexico and settled on this property, living first in a camper and then in a small shed while they built the house over the next year and a half.
“It was a process, a lot of work,” Amanda, 39, said. “We did it ourselves. We didn’t have a contractor. It was my dad, my uncle, whoever. An uncle did the plumbing.”
Esquibel and her husband divorced, but she kept the house on N.M. 94.
“I remember (Ezra) doing circles on the front porch in a bouncy swing when he was just 1,” she said. “A lot of good memories. It is so beautiful here in the summer. And we used to get big snows here. One year, we had 3 feet. I said, ‘I’m not shoveling snow any more.’ I got a four-wheeler with a snowplow five years ago. And you know, it hasn’t snowed that much since then.”
Amanda said the most precious thing her mother lost in the fire was her collection of unique Bibles, in different translations, maybe as many as a hundred of them.
“We found them,” Amanda said. “Some still had words on them. But, when you touched them, they turned to powder.”
It was ‘her peace’
Esquibel had been splitting time between her house on N.M. 94 and her dad’s house in Las Vegas, caring for him as he got older.
The plan had been for the family to live together in the house after Amanda completed her nursing program at Luna Community College this month. The new bedroom was to be used by Esquibel’s dad.
But now what? Esquibel is not sure. She had some insurance, but not enough to rebuild the house. Can she live here again? Does she want to?
Stark trees stripped by fire stand like perpetual shadows behind the ruins of the house. Two mobile homes on an adjacent piece of property have been ruined by the blaze. So have a horse trailer and a boat on Esquibel’s land. Near her house site, a small cinderblock building that once served as a church for a Christian community in the area is a charred wreck.
“She would come here for the quiet and the greenery,” Amanda said of her mother. “This was her peace. But now the greenery is gone. It may bring back bad memories. It may be somber.”
Esquibel retired after working 22 years in administrative secretary positions at New Mexico Highlands University.
“I worked hard all my life,” she said, the sentence slipping unfinished from her tongue as her thoughts turned to others, people who have lost the only homes they have ever known.
“A lot of people here are elderly,” she said. “They are living on Social Security. What happens to them? I may have a little energy left. But do they?”
‘Rolling the dice’
More than 1,750 firefighters are assigned to the blaze.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a Tuesday morning briefing that residents in mandatory evacuation areas who choose not to leave are “rolling the dice” during days of high-risk fire weather.
“These fires move extremely fast,” she said.
The blaze is the nation’s largest current wildfire and the second-largest in New Mexico history.
Colfax County communities may be impacted during red flag days on Wednesday and Thursday, said operations section chief Todd Abel.
“Black Lake, Angel Fire, there is the possibility – this fire’s got enough energy that those areas could see fire,” Abel said.
The team is also working on the fire’s southwest flank to keep it from moving toward Pecos.
Incident commander Dave Bales said that high winds on Monday blew embers ahead of the main fire, in some places “spotting” ahead up to 2 miles.
The fire’s north end has made a run toward Chacon and Guadalupita.
“Trying to go on a direct fire edge with a dozer or a hand crew, or even a retardant line – a 2-mile spot is going to jump that,” Bales said. “That has been our biggest challenge so far.”
Officials have to date spent about $51 million fighting the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, according to state forester Laura McCarthy and data from the National Interagency Coordination Center.
The Cerro Pelado Fire east of Jemez Springs has racked up $15.8 million in firefighting costs.
The New Mexico Environment Department on Tuesday issued precautionary water advisories for several public systems that serve nearly 4,000 people in San Miguel and Mora counties because of wildfire-related power outages.
NMED recommends residents use another source of drinking water.
State Engineer Mike Hamman has temporarily restricted water diversions from the middle reach of the Gallinas River, Storrie Canal and Storrie Lake.
The restrictions will preserve water supply for firefighting and the city of Las Vegas.
Lujan Grisham said that she believes there will be “significant federal liability” for destruction caused by Hermits Peak.
The wildfire began as a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn in early April.
“When you think about rebuilding communities,” Lujan Grisham said, “it is not an overnight process.”