“Hondo, illegal burn. 99 Old Las Vegas Highway. Timeout, 1620.”
Typically, this is a call that gets maybe one or two firefighters and a brush truck rolling to the scene. Typically, we find a campfire, someone burning slash or our always favorite, a sweat lodge.
But yesterday was not typical. We responded with two brush trucks, an engine, a tender (a truck that carries water) and a med unit. All told, twelve firefighters showed up.
It was a good thing. We are in the middle of another historic drought, and yesterday the winds were thirty miles an hour, gusting to sixty.
It was a good thing we came with numbers.
(a comic relief digression: at the beginning of the rutted driveway there was a “No Trespassing” sign with a note: “Resident is Armed!” Another quarter of a mile up there was another sign: “You are now in range of my rifle.” I figured he wouldn’t shoot at us, the fire department coming to rescue his butt, but stranger things have happened.)
A careless dumping of hot ashes from the resident’s fireplace had caused a small brush fire, and the wind quickly spread the fire to the garage. When we arrived, flames were climbing the wall and had already breeched the roof.
We were, as I fervently believe, the luckiest fire department in the west. We got water on the garage fire and knocked it down and extinguished the fire burning in the grass and weeds.
Lucky. Another ten minutes and the garage would have been fully involved with fire, and the wind would have spread burning embers hundreds of yards upwind. We would’ve been faced with a monstrous wildland fire. Ten homes upwind and uphill in heavily forested piñón and juniper terrain would’ve probably been lost. A fire pushing uphill and up arroyos by sixty mile-an-hour winds is just something we can’t handle.
When we finished, fires out and we had packed up, there was a palpable sense of relief that this hadn’t turned into the “big one.” We had dodged the dragon-fire one more time.
But it’s only April, and the rains aren’t due until July.
So we’re on edge. This morning, for example, we had a car rollover in a little village in the mountains called Canadá De Los Alamos. There were no injuries. (actually, there was no patient, just a scattering of liquor bottles — the little ones— and a destroyed and cold car. Typical New Mexico)
But driving out of the quaint village I thought, what if there was a wildfire here? There is only one way in and one way out. A big fire would consume the entire village in a day, just like the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos in 2000. People might not get out.
Driving down, all I saw were homes in the dry and tinder-like forest. Hundreds of homes. And I thought about the innocent act of dumping hot ashes in the trash. That act — that fast — and the hundreds of homes could be destroyed, and lives put at risk.
I asked myself, how long will our luck hold?
So this is the time of year where we dream about fire. We watch the weather. We scan the horizon for smoke. We are a fire department on edge.
(Photo credit Steve at Gigapic)