Huge Wildfire Threatens This Historic New Mexico Town, But It Can't Call for Help
The largest wildfire in the US is expanding and closing in on isolated communities where all communications are out.
Eric MackContributing Editor
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For nearly two centuries, a few dozen families have persisted in the tiny village of Chacon, New Mexico, eking out a humble living in a narrow valley known for both harsh winters and frequent drought.
But through generations of struggle, perched at 8,500 feet in elevation, they have also maintained watch over one of the most enviable views in the southern Rocky Mountains -- looking south through a short canyon toward the striking Sangre de Cristo mountains that backstop the verdant, larger Mora Valley that's home to about 2,000 people. Today, though, that view is more like staring down the barrel of a loaded gun in the form of relentless winds pushing both smoke and flames from the largest wildfire in the US up the canyon.
What's worse: The historic community literally has no way to call for help as it stands on the brink of annihilation.
When I visited the valley on Tuesday, May 3, the Calf Canyon and Hermit's Peak fire complex had already burned over 145,000 acres and hundreds of structures. (As of Monday morning, the total area burned had grown to over 189,000 acres.) The burned area stretches from the edge of the Mora Valley all the way south to the larger city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where thousands of homes are also threatened by wind-driven flames.
All access to the adjacent Mora Valley has been blocked for weeks as the community, which is also at the center of one of the poorest counties in the country, has been under a mandatory evacuation order. It's been reported that hundreds of residents initially opted to remain at home to watch over their properties, but since the fire doubled in size over the weekend of April 30 - May 1, it's thought that most have now fled to emergency shelters or to stay with family members elsewhere in the state.
New Mexico State Police were enforcing a roadblock at the north entrance to the Mora Valley on the morning of May 3. Anyone making the long drive down a mountain pass to reach that point would be forced to either turn around or take a left turn on the seven-mile road that leads through the canyon to Chacon.
For residents who haven't yet fled the advancing inferno, understanding just how close the danger is at any moment became more difficult this week.
"This is day two with no phones, no internet, no nothing," Cody Vasquez told me in front of the Chacon Fire Department on Tuesday afternoon.
He and his father, Alfred, are members of the volunteer fire crew. They greeted me dressed in matching yellow flame-resistant shirts just as they were about to climb into one of the department's cherry-red fire engines and drive south to help protect properties near the front line of the fires.
The pair told me that since the fires damaged the valley's cell tower a few days ago, the community at the end of the long road has been cut off.
"You gotta drive to Sipapu to make a call," Cody added.
Reaching the Sipapu ski lodge from Chacon involves a 45-minute drive up a mountain pass and through a winding canyon, one way. Back at the roadblock, local residents pause at the intersection to ask state troopers for any fire updates before climbing up State Road 518 toward the distant promise of connectivity.
"There are people in Chacon that have no outside connection unless someone drives there," Roger Montoya told me when I visited him at his home in Velarde on Tuesday morning.
Montoya is the state representative for sprawling House District 40, which reaches from the Rio Grande north to touch the Colorado border and east to the Great Plains, including the entire Mora Valley and Chacon. He's been making the drive to Chacon, roughly 90 minutes from his home, to keep residents there informed.
"It's my duty to continue to get in as far as I can and to help disseminate information so that when the 'Go' happens, they can exit [State Road] 518 safely."
He says the majority of people have already left the area, which is what I found when I drove through. The few public gathering places in Chacon -- a tiny credit union, post office and church -- were all shut, locked and darkened. Electricity has been intermittent at best. Some people could be seen tending to livestock in fields, but otherwise the only action I came across was at the Fire Department.
It's possible to receive FM radio signals from distant stations in Las Vegas and the town of Raton to the north. But with access to the area virtually shut off, even regional media is limited to simply repeating official fire updates from law enforcement and the Santa Fe National Forest.
In this informational void, rumors and hearsay fill the vacuum. Reports on social media suggest certain beloved businesses have burned down only to be invalidated later, and evacuees have been sent seeking shelter at the wrong locations hours away.
"When you get on to social media and start post information that is not correct... it just makes my job and the job of others out there more difficult to provide safety," Mora County Under Sheriff Americk Padilla said on Wednesday's interagency fire update.
Help from above
"Communication is one of the biggest gaps," Montoya said. "Could we think about putting a Starlink satellite above every major rural village within the 22 million acres of forest in New Mexico? Just as a backup. Why are we struggling when human lives and structures at this scale are in peril? [This is] the most serious fire event in the US right now. I think we can do better."
SpaceX's Starlink internet service is available in New Mexico, but the cost of the hardware is steep, starting at $599. SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have demonstrated their ability to deploy the service in crises like the war in Ukraine, where the service was activated and receiver kits were sent to the country after Russia invaded in late February.
SpaceX didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
For now, though, residents of Chacon and the Mora Valley are forced to rely on the same form of communication as their ancestors -- word of mouth spread by people walking it from door to door. On Tuesday, it was local law enforcement and officials like Montoya himself carrying that message.
When I returned from the Mora Valley Tuesday evening, I was able to go online myself for the first time in hours and found that the mandatory "Go" evacuation order had finally been given for Chacon while I was driving back.
"I understand we're all on edge," Under Sheriff Padilla said later. "Once we're able to start putting people back in their homes, we're gonna start letting people back in and start rebuilding."
For a moment, I wondered who most of the residents received word of the new evacuation order from first, or if they even knew yet that it was time to go.
Over the weekend of May 7-8, a new alert went out reiterating that Chacon and the surrounding area was under a mandatory evacuation order. A combination of strong winds, dryness and warm weather that the National Weather Service calls "historic" began on May 8 and is forecast to continue Monday and Tuesday.
Communities to the west of the Mora Valley, including the ski lodge at Sipapu where some residents now must travel to make phone calls, has been asked to prepare for a possible mandatory evacuation order as the fire continues to spread.