Three wildfires skirted the author’s Boulder home. Then two more converged on her ancestral house in New Mexico. In the drying West, people must now keep their “head on a swivel.”
National Geographic, May 17, 2022
My great-grandfather bought the land in the 1890s, in order to log it. It was 10 miles from his home in the small city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he ran a business selling goods hauled by wagon along the Santa Fe trail. But then he traveled up the steep river-canyon and saw the ancient ponderosa pines and the lush meadows that climbed toward a granite-faced mountain called Hermit’s Peak. He decided to build a house there instead.
When we heard about the fire in early April, we were planning a Zoom call to discuss the future of the place. A dozen cousins now share ownership of four houses and 700 forested acres. But on April 6, a prescribed burn at the base of Hermits Peak—set, ironically, to protect the land from fire—grew out of control. In 130 years, a fire had never come so close to us. Not wanting to tempt fate, we canceled the meeting, and breathed a sigh of relief when the Hermit’s Peak fire, as it came to be called, moved northeast and away from our land. By April 19, the blaze was almost entirely contained.
But then my cousin Charlie, who lives on the property, emailed to let us know that a new blaze, the Calf Canyon fire, had ignited just west of Hermit’s Peak. The two fires had merged, and our canyon, to the south of the fire, was being evacuated. “Some of us are holding out as the Forest Service is calling for the fire to continue moving north and northeast,” he wrote. “I’m ready to go if need be.”
On April 28, the winds intensified and shifted, pushing the fire toward us down the canyon. Some cousins drove up from Santa Fe and Albuquerque to help Charlie move the old furniture and photos and guest books and Navajo blankets, as well as the big sheepdogs who guarded the property and kept Charlie company.
“In evac mode,” Charlie texted me. “Dangerous situation right now.” He could almost have been speaking for a whole region.
Left: Max Nordhaus, left, the author’s great-grandfather, built the first of several houses on the family property in 1890. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burned through the canyon on May 1, but firefighters were able to save the houses. Right: Another old photo shows what the first house looked like in the days of horse-drawn wagons (like the one at right).
When fire becomes normal
Calf Canyon is my fifth brush with wildfire in as many months. The first came just before New Year’s, near my home in Boulder, Colorado, 400 miles north of Hermit’s Peak. In a period of six hours, the Marshall fire burned 1,084 homes to the south and east of us. It spread so fast, fanned by winds gusting up to 100 mph, that people fled their homes without even grabbing their phones and computers, kids still in pajamas, leaving photo albums, mementos, documents. Some who’d been away couldn’t get home to save beloved pets. Our house was close to the ignition point but upwind. The fire blew the flames at sickening, inconceivable speed—away from us.
The second fire ignited in late March in the hills west of our Boulder home. I saw the plume as I was leaving the grocery store and raced home to evacuate. We were out of our home for a few hours—but we were, again, upwind, and crews quickly contained the blaze. A third fire ignited a few days later, sparked by smoldering fuels from the second; those flames blew away from us, too. As did the initial Hermit’s Peak fire, barely a week later.
But the winds couldn’t always blow in our favor—and eventually, inevitably, they shifted. Eventually, inevitably, the land—parched and clogged with fuel built up over a century of fire suppression—will burn. That is the way it is in today’s arid Southwest.
“It’s not a surprise to anyone,” said Craig Allen, a New Mexico-based landscape ecologist. “We’re 23 years into a megadrought.”
Every 50 years or so, the Southwest sees an extended dry period—the last bad one was in the 1950s. But extended megadroughts like this one are much rarer. There was one in the 1200s that drove the ancient Puebloans out of the Four Corners canyons; this one is worse. According to tree-ring records, the last two decades have been the driest in at least 1,200 years.
Thanks to the warming climate, temperatures are higher—winters are shorter, with snow falling later in the fall and melting earlier in the spring. Warmer air also sucks additional moisture out of soil, snowpack, and vegetation. “Fuels are drier and fire behavior is more explosive,” Allen said.
Add extraordinary spring winds, and you have the sort of inferno we’re seeing in northern New Mexico. Between April 6 and May 12, the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings, indicating high winds and fire danger, on 26 of 36 days, with speeds gusting up to 70 mph. “I have never seen a forecast like this, or anything close to it,” veteran National Weather Service fire forecaster John Pendergrast told a community briefing.
Each morning at 9:30 and again in the evening at 6, the Forest Service has been posting live updates on Facebook. I watched every day as the fire approached our property, and came to know and love the team: There was Jayson, the operations section chief, exhausted and soulful, and Todd, who replaced him after a few weeks, with a walrus mustache and cowboy hat.
They walked us around a map of the fire’s perimeter each night, speaking of “fuels” (trees and shrubs and grass) and “values” (houses, outbuildings, utility poles), of backfires and “dozer lines” and “catcher’s mitts,” where they burned fuel between the fire and the containment lines. They talked about structure protection—moving woodpiles, clearing pine needles from roofs and gutters, setting up sprinklers around houses. Sometimes, if conditions permitted, firefighters could stay and “herd” the flames around the structures. Sometimes, they didn’t have time to do anything.
I watched the meteorologists, Bladen and Gary, speak of the terrifying, implacable winds, and “Stickman,” as my cousin and I called him—heavily muscled and tattooed, pointing to the fire map with a stick that looked like a duct-taped sword from a Renaissance fair. He educated us on how fires move (fast in grass, slower in timber; fast uphill, slower down), and how embers can vault far into the air past containment lines to start new fires miles away. Chris Lopez, the San Miguel County sheriff, came onscreen each day to announce new evacuations. “I’ve seen this fire do things that I didn’t think it would do,” he said, urging those not yet evacuated to be ready. “You need to be head on a swivel.”
Head on a swivel, I’d check a GIS heat map throughout the day. It showed data from infrared overflights, red triangles and orange squares indicating heat detections from two different satellites. On Sunday, May 1, I clicked on the map and saw that those triangles and squares had engulfed our property.
A place of desire
Every summer throughout my childhood I ran feral on that land, racing cousins through meadows of penstemon and Indian paintbrush, wading in the river, jumping off a big rock into a clear, cold pool that housed an enormous, mythical trout that had, they say, outwitted dozens of fishermen for dozens of years. I was married there; my father’s ashes are buried there. My children jump off the same big rock.
The place means so much to us. But my full-time home is elsewhere, and I have somewhere else to go. Many of our neighbors’ ancestors arrived with the conquistadors and stayed, speaking a unique dialect of Spanish formed through centuries of isolation in remote valleys, on the far northern edge of the Spanish Empire. That attachment to the land has a name here: querencia. It means a place of desire, where you feel safe, where you belong.
“Our ties to this land are sacred and deep,” County Commissioner Max Trujillo said at an evening briefing, speaking of his fellow northern New Mexicans. “We are Norteños. We are of this land.”
Some neighbors have lost everything; many will have no insurance, or not enough. “It’s traumatic, the overnight transformation of these places,” said Allen, who witnessed one of the first big fires of this megadrought in 2000 in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, a couple of hours west of Las Vegas, an area that is burning again this spring.
After the Calf Canyon fire burned through our property on May 1, our neighbor Leroy Miller y Romero, who had remained in the canyon to help as a volunteer firefighter, went to check it out. The fire had hit his land to the north of us two or three days earlier. He had stayed to water his houses until ash began raining down on him and the federal firefighters said he had to go.
“I’ve never seen anything in my life like that,” he told me. “I thought fire would never make a noise, but it was like a freight train coming through. It came roaring in down the valley.” Looking out his window, he watched trees explode into flame. His house survived; some nearby did not. “Some of these properties look like the moon,” he said. “It’s just sticks and burned ground.”
Miller y Romero and the other firefighters imagined that our place—sided in cedar shingles, at the top of a bluff facing the oncoming fire—would stand no chance. “Everyone thought, no way that place is going to make it,” he said.
But we got lucky, again: It seems our houses will survive. The firefighters had wetted them and cleared brush from the perimeter, and the flames went around them, burning a barn and other outbuildings, our water tank and pipes, and much of the forested land down to the river, now clogged with ash. Forty-two utility poles burned in the canyon; the power company couldn’t even estimate how long it would take to restore electricity. There was never any cell service—but now the phone lines are gone too.
A few days ago, Miller y Romero sent photos. I could see how the fire blazed up to and around the houses, closing ranks on the other side and rushing on. It burned in a patchwork, leaving blackened ground in one spot, green grass in another. Some of the huge ponderosas—the ones my great-grandfather saved from the mill 130 years ago—were untouched, while others had burned to their crowns. Still others were blackened only at the base.
Perhaps those will survive. Perhaps we’ll be among them this summer, or next. And perhaps they will be fuel for the next fire, which will, inevitably, roar down the canyon—soon, maybe, or perhaps in another decade or generation.
“There’s a lot of people that can’t sleep now,” Miller told me. “They smell smoke and say, where is that coming from?”
Fire changes everything. We watch the briefings each night; the fire keeps going, consuming cherished land. “This is a long-term event,” the incident commander repeats. At last count, the fire had grown to 300,000 acres—almost 500 square miles—displaced tens of thousands of people, and burned nearly 600 homes. And at the moment there are two other large wildfires burning in New Mexico.
Keep your head on a swivel, the sheriff said.
I reckon we will be that way—head on a swivel, ready to go—in our canyon, and in the sacred, shimmering, scorched Southwest, from here on out.