Fire burns the Bernalillo bosque area near Sheriff’s Posse Grounds
Bernalillo bosque fire blitzed
Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade
On Thursday, July 14, multiple agencies responded to a fire call off Sheriff’s Posse Road, in Bernalillo, to what later would be called the River’s Edge Fire. Over a dozen firefighters responded from Placitas, and were joined by forces from Rio Rancho, Corrales, Bernalillo and Algodones. The fire, caused by either lightning or a tree branch falling on power lines, occurred on one of the hottest days in the area and at 5:00 p.m., during the hottest time of the day. This fire was unusual in that it wasn’t simply a single fire but multiple fires, whipped by gusty winds. The smoke was thick and choking to the fire crew, stinging their eyes and making an uncomfortably hot situation even more difficult.
A fire hydrant about a mile away provided a water source for several tankers utilized to shuttle water to drop tanks adjacent to the fire engines. The wet sandy conditions soon resulted in more than one tanker getting stuck, requiring a dozer to free them up for continuation of shuttle activities. The gusty winds subsided, followed by several wind directional shifts, threatening to send the fire back upon the firefighters. At one point, construction work crews were evacuated when smoke and flames got within a hundred yards of their construction site, but no structures adjacent to the area were damaged by the fire.
The multiple attacks provided by the various agencies soon prevailed and the fire was knocked down. State Forestry took over the scene near dark, and mop-up continued well into the night. Spot smoking and embers refusing to die continued for several days, but the fact that there were no reported injuries or private-property damage reflects how the combined forces of paid and volunteer organizations throughout the region can be brought together in a relatively short period of time to the benefit of the entire Sandoval County community.
La Casita Café, a popular New Mexican restaurant in Bernalillo, burned.
La Casita Café is gutted by fire
On July 20, the interior of La Casita Cafe was destroyed by fire. Four fire departments responded to the blaze which was reported just after 8:00 p.m. The fires destroyed over fifty percent of the historic building which has housed the popular restaurant for twenty-three years. The cause was still under investigation a week later. Donna Montoya told the Signpost that she and her husband John plan to rebuild. “We can’t retire yet,” she said. “We want to thank all the fire departments and member of the community who have been so supportive.”
Cibola National Forest increases fire restrictions
Beginning July 15, the following restrictions apply to Mt. Taylor, Mountainair, Magdalena, and Sandia Ranger Districts:
- Building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire, campfire, charcoal broiler, coal or wood stove is prohibited. Pressurized-liquid or gas stoves, lanterns, and heaters meeting safety specifications are allowed.
- No personal-use firewood cutting will be allowed until further notice. Extensions will be granted to individuals with existing personal-use permits.
- All vehicles must remain on forest roads.
- Smoking is prohibited, except within an enclosed vehicle or building.
For more information, call 346-3900 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire.
Forester's log: Frightening lightning
Lightning, thunder, open ground, ridgetop. Moments—short moments—between flash and crash.
A piece of osha is tucked safely in my pocket. Over a decade ago an Apache friend recommended carrying this root to avoid lightning strikes. Now that I need this protection so vitally I am wondering if I have handled it properly. It occurs to me that according to my own tradition, this would be a real appropriate time for praying.
It is also a real appropriate time for running. I sprint past the lone trees and snags left on the ridgetop of this burned landscape.
My companion admits to a history of close calls with lightning. I have my own history as well. We agree to stay apart and he drops back while I run ahead. This is a standard procedure for folks caught in lightning storms: split up, so if struck, one's companions can offer first aid and get help. We meet a few times to in the next half hour to decide if staying on the ridgetop, making progress toward our truck, is preferable to dropping off the exposed ridge and seeking refuge on the hillslopes.
We are out miles from the truck, assessing vegetation recovery in the two-year-old Kinishba burn. I point out that the hillslopes are blanketed in spectral, teetering fields of blackened skeletal trees. In the wild winds that accompany the thunderstorm, it is the last place I want to go. The contractor suggests that our hard hats might provide protection from falling trees. We both laugh at this ridiculous rationale. I dart ahead, racing up yet another incline.
It is a childhood habit, but I am counting now. Flash. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-crash. Flash. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-crash. Flash. One-one thousand, flash, two thousand, flash, three thousand, crash. Which flash belongs to which crash?
Finally, the road begins to switch back down toward the canyon below. I quickly slip off the ridge in long lopes. Flash, one thousand, crash. There is no confusion now, as I marvel at the momentary contact of an intense bolt of light on the ridge above, the same ground I had passed by only minutes earlier.
There is little moisture in this thunder cell—alarming to the firefighter in me—but for the moment I am grateful. I failed to grab my rain gear this morning when jumping into the contractor's truck. Though I am mentally prepared to get drenched, there are barely enough raindrops to settle the dust beneath my feet. We also left the truck a few hours ago in the drainage bottom, where the road had washed out. I've been around large burns long enough to know the vast power of flash floods in these denuded landscapes.
I key the mike on the radio on my chest. As I run, I have been listening to my colleagues report on weather and fire conditions across the reservation. Our helitack crew has aborted their mission on the Black River, due to lightning. The observation plane landing now in Show Low is reporting thunderstorms “all the way to Phoenix” and note “it looks like very little moisture is reaching the ground.” Some of my employees have found a fire near Cedar Creek, about five miles away from my location. They have felled the burning snag, put a line around it, and are now involved in their own race back to vehicles, dodging lightning.
I report my position and the fact that we are getting ground strikes without moisture.
“Do you see any smoke?” the helpful dispatcher responds. “No, I am currently in a dead run trying to get out of this storm,” I explain, “I recommend an aerial recon for this area in the morning.”
“Copy that,” the dispatcher replies, and I hope my colleagues monitoring the radio manage to slip in a few prayers for my safety between their bouts of laughter.
When I reach the canyon bottom, I turn on the head lamp. Like many drainages in recent burns, the bottom is a scoured rock field. It would seem ironic to survive the ridge exposure without harm and then twist an ankle in the final sprint to the truck. I consider slowing down, but remember stories of ball lightning moving down similar drainages. The safety of the rubber-tired truck lures me on.
Finally, we are both in the truck and bumping our way through the canyon bottom, still aware of the threat of flash floods if more moisture has reached other parts of this watershed. Our stories flow, our respect for lightning renewed. We have each been thrown by lightning. Chad's incident included a fatality; he was at an outdoor concert when lightning hit a tree nearby. I've been luckier, both times in wilderness and no one was seriously hurt. We talk about the ozone smell, the noise, the strange way our hair levitated in our near-strike experiences. We both know firsthand how lucky we have been.
Mary Stuever is the Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation Coordinator for the White Mountain Apache Tribe and long-time Placitas resident.