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Cody Rivera, a New Mexico Highlands University freshman, didn’t take the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires seriously at first.
On April 11, he and his cousin hiked his family’s entire 100-acre ranch a few miles outside Pendaries Village, scouting the Hermits Peak Fire. Rivera said they couldn’t see it and concluded it wouldn’t reach their property. He returned to his home in Las Vegas, where he studies business administration at Highlands.
But, about a week and a half later, the fires reached the property, swallowing most of it, and leaving behind charred earth and skeletons of trees he said stuck out of the ground “like toothpicks.”
“There’s nothing up there no more,” he told the Journal, except around 15 trees that may survive. “Everything else was black, and ash, and dead … it looks like the moon.”
Little remained from his family’s old ranch home, save for a crumpled corrugated-metal roof, a brick chimney and thick adobe walls blackened by smoke. Everything Rivera left there was lost, he said, including baby pictures, and his high school cap and gown.
The image of the fire’s rampage through his family’s ranch, along with being evacuated from his home in Las Vegas on May 2, has distracted him while he finishes his first year in college.
“It’s sad to say, but it was the last priority in my mind. I wasn’t worried about assignments. I know finals are this week – I wasn’t even worried about that,” he said. “I was more concerned about the safety of my family and our belongings … . That was more of the primary focus for me.”
NMHU, located in the middle of Las Vegas, has urged its instructors to support their students in any way they need, said Denise Montoya, incident commander for the Highlands Emergency Operation Command Team.
“There is definitely impact in the mental psyche of the individuals who are experiencing this directly, and we are concerned about that,” she said. “That’s why we’re trying to do everything we can to help support our students and to let them know that they’re part of the Highlands family, and we’re here to take care of them.”
Rivera said he’s taken advantage of the grace his professors have extended him, choosing to accept some of their offers to submit his grades as they are instead of having to “worry about anything else.”
But a major concern still lingering for some NMHU graduates-to-be, student body president Karla Espinoza said, is that the commencement ceremony on campus has been postponed. Montoya said the main reason for the postponement is the fires, and their unpredictability means the university hasn’t set a new date for the main-campus commencement yet.
(Luna Community College, also in Las Vegas, has postponed its commencement until July 30.)
For students who don’t want to wait, NMHU has planned several alternatives, such as the one that took place in Rio Rancho on Thursday and another in Farmington on Saturday.
But Espinoza said many graduates are still torn over not being able to “walk where all (their) tears were shed.”
“There’s that understanding of not being able to have it here, but there’s also, I think, a little anger and frustration,” she said.
NMHU senior Carmelita Sanchez said she’s one of the students waiting for the university to announce a new date for commencement. That’s because she has people she wants there who wouldn’t be able to reach the other ceremonies.
“I couldn’t even really seriously consider the Rio Rancho one, just because … all my family is kind of spread right now,” Sanchez said. “It’s been quite hard to figure out what steps I need to take next in terms of life goals, student goals.”
Sanchez, a psychology major and fine arts minor, said her family has lived in Mora County for generations. She was also chased by the fires from several places, first fleeing her childhood home in Rainsville on April 22, and then from her aunt’s property in Las Vegas a week later.
The second time she had to evacuate, she said she could see the flames bearing down on her aunt’s home, which is just outside the city. She rushed to repack the things she’d grabbed the first time, among them rented school books, art supplies, and the cap and gown she’d need to graduate, then scooped her small dachshund into her car, and struck out once again.
At the same time, her family also packed up in a frenzy, while her uncle and cousin hosed her aunt’s home down with water in an effort to thwart the inferno.
“It was crazy, because, at first, we just saw the smoke, and it’s scary,” she said. “But when you see the flames, that’s different. You see flames and they look like they’re coming straight at you, and you’re just gonna panic.”
Juggling evacuations, work and finals has been a challenge she said she’s never had to deal with before. At times, Sanchez said she stared at exam materials she’d studied all semester, and wasn’t able to understand a word.
“It has definitely been very hard with schoolwork, I’ve had to lock myself in a room and force myself to focus on what I’m doing,” she said. “A good three-fourths of my attention is on the fire. And the rest is for everything else that I have to do.”
Sending students home
As the fires grew, they approached parts of Las Vegas at the end of April and early May. On Saturday, April 30, Luna Community College leadership warned students and staff to stay off its main campus. They also canceled classes that Monday because of fire danger.
“A very large part of our population has been affected by the fire,” LCC President Edward Martinez said, adding around 75% of students and 87% of full-time employees live in Mora and San Miguel counties. Martinez himself has been evacuated twice because of the fires, he said.
Schools and districts have had difficulties estimating the exact numbers of students or staff who have been evacuated. In some cases, that’s because people don’t have internet access to report back on their situation.
Students and staff have not been allowed back on campus, LCC Vice President of Instruction and Student Services Dani Day said. She said people could not work normally because of the thick smoke lingering in the area.
As they finished out the semester, faculty were asked to give students one-on-one support, including help to find places and provide technology to take exams, Martinez said.
Still, some students weren’t ecstatic about returning to remote learning, but humanities instructor Rick Baca said they were able to make the switch quickly.
“If we learned anything from COVID, the students have learned how to adapt,” Baca said. “They’re kind of veterans of getting into emergency mode, it seems.”
Remote learning has also been difficult for many NMHU students, Espinoza said. While they’ve faced it before during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said an online format feels like “just going through the motions” when compared to in-person learning.
“We kind of got used to it,” she said. “But I think there’s a great loss in that education, I think you don’t get the same kind of hands-on learning.”
As an alternative to remote learning, Mora Independent School District Superintendent Marvin MacAuley said students also could enroll in the school districts they evacuated to.
But that option wasn’t popular in his district, he said, because students weren’t familiar with people or the areas they were in. Most he’d spoken to preferred remote learning.
Day said LCC instructors could extend the end of classes through May 30, if needed. The college will also let instructors give students “incomplete” grades so that, if they need more time, they can come back to finish class activities later with no penalties.
NMHU, Martinez said, has coordinated with LCC for space where college staff can work. The day before LCC sent its campus alert, United World College-USA announced its students had evacuated to Las Vegas. NMHU said it hosted and fed “over 200 evacuees” before helping them to transition to the Glorieta Conference Center the next day.
April 22 would have been a normal day at school, MacAuley said. But, when he looked up, he said he saw an ominous plume of smoke behind the district campus and watched ash fall from the sky.
At that moment, he knew it was time to send students home.
“That was pretty surreal, I’ve never experienced that in my career, where you see that imminent danger coming,” he said. “It was like, ‘I gotta get kids out of here.’ ”
Almost all of MacAuley’s staff have evacuated. He said he doesn’t know how many of the district’s more than 400 students have left. They’ve scattered to the winds, staying at different evacuation centers or at relatives’ homes, he said.
The district has a daunting task on its hands as soon as students are able to return to school, MacAuley said, as it focuses on social-emotional learning to help students deal with the trauma the fires leave behind.
Counselors have online classrooms in the meantime for Mora Independent School District students to voice their concerns or anything else on their minds.
NMHU has also mobilized counselors and social workers on campus to offer daily support to help students deal with the crisis, which Espinoza described as “very emotional.”
One silver lining for MISD high-schoolers, MacAuley said, is that they’ll be able to celebrate their prom at the Governor’s Mansion this year. He’d wondered about the fate of this year’s dance, given the circumstances, and posed the question to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. He said she grinned and said she’d need to think about it. Her office later gave him the green light.
But, even after the fires are put out, MacAuley said, it will take a long time to recover. Academic leaders from around the area emphasized that it’s their job to guide their communities forward and help in any way they can.
“We have to be at the tip of the spear to provide normalcy, to provide mental trauma first-aid for our students, (and) … to align resources for our students that need them,” MacAuley said. “When people come back, it’s not going to be the same. And they’re going to need a lot of support – both students and families.”