MONTEZUMA CREEK, Utah — Bernadine Beyale, a commanding woman with sharp eyes, stands with a hiking pole in one hand and a GoPro camera strapped around her chest. She is on a dirt road on the Navajo Nation near the Arizona border, carrying a backpack filled with water bottles for her and her two German shepherds, a notebook, a two-way radio and two phones. A blanket of reddish sand spreads out in all directions, giving way to cliffs, desert washes and broad mesas. “The last thing he was wearing was a maroon shirt, gray sweatpants and mismatched flip-flops,” Beyale tells the 20 people gathered around her by a windmill. “If you come across bones… don’t touch it.
On a sweltering day at the end of July, Mike Amos crouched by his tent, fiddling with a few car batteries powered by solar panels that sat on the bottom rack of a shopping cart. Amos used them to charge his phone, e-cigarettes and an electric skillet while living at Albuquerque’s Coronado Park, where he has stayed for much of the last six years. He had a couple of other carts filled with his belongings, along with a bicycle and a brindle Tennessee hound named Skittles. “Compared to the rest of society, I’m a dirtbag,” he said. “But for here, I live pretty good.”
On any given night, some 70 to 120 people stayed in the park that had become the face of Albuquerque’s homeless crisis, with a reputation as a haven for drug use, violence and poor sanitation.
At 4:15 p.m. on April 6, a team of wildland firefighters stood on alert near a rocky ridge just northwest of Las Vegas. The spot in the valley was breathtaking, full of ponderosa pine and jagged stone outcroppings. Hermit’s Peak — a dramatic craggy mountain crest — loomed overhead.
The crew was standing guard over a prescribed fire when suddenly an order came over the radio, directing them to abandon their post and head downslope where embers had jumped outside the containment lines. In the minutes that followed, the winds shifted, the flames spread and all the fire engines ran out of water. At 4:50 p.m., U.S. Forest Service officials declared that the prescribed burn had become a wildfire.
TIERRA MONTE — Ever since the start of the monsoon season, a torrent of boulders and debris has tumbled down the mountainside toward the Encinias family home, only months after the land was laid bare by fire. On April 22, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze consumed almost everything around them, including their five-bedroom house, private well and most all worldly possessions. Since then, the family of five, their four dogs and eight cats have lived in a 38-foot RV. The summer has been unspeakable for Daniel and Lori Ann Encinias’ three youngest daughters, who, in the coming days, are slated to return to school: Amanda, 18, at Luna Community College, and Justina, 16, and Jaylene, 15, at Robertson High School. For them and countless others, catastrophe overshadows their return to learning.
It’s quiet outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a hulking facility of brick, cinderblock and glass nearly 20 miles west of Albuquerque. On a recent day, cattle graze near the jail’s parking lot and though the Sandia Speedway is just up the road, the tracks are silent. Even the air is fresh — free of the stench of rotten eggs from the Cerro Colorado Landfill just two miles away. Inside New Mexico’s largest jail, it’s a different story. The long hallways are lined with heaping piles of trash; there aren’t enough guards or custodial staff on hand to remove them.
April Hoogerhuies got the phone call in the middle of packing up her home in Las Vegas, frantically trying to get things ready in case the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon inferno forced her to evacuate.
“Is your land for sale?” the caller inquired. It was two weeks after the wildfire started, and the blaze was imperiling people’s lives — evacuation orders were in the offing for nearly every village from Mora to Las Vegas. Hoogerhuies could already see flames engulfing the nearby hills. “This isn’t the time or place for this,” she replied.
The caller rattled off a company name too quickly to note, but it was clear she wanted to buy a plot of undeveloped property that Hoogerhuies and her husband Daniel own in Manuelitas, just east of Hermits Peak. The couple maintains a greenhouse on the land, where they plant crops like pumpkins, radishes and tomatoes.
In the wee hours of June 15, 2021, Ella Mae Begay vanished from her home on the Navajo Nation, near Sweetwater, Arizona. She was 62 years old. Within days of Begay’s disappearance, a person of interest was named in the case and local search parties were scouring the roadsides and arroyos near Sweetwater. But more than a year into an investigation by Navajo law enforcement and the FBI, no arrests have been made. Begay still has not been found.
TIERRA MONTE — The air smells of ash and the landscape is leached of color. Spots of green punctuate the valley floor in places. But along the ridges, the powdery residue of charred trees has fallen like snow, accumulating up to 4 inches deep. These are the slices of forest where the fire burned the hottest, scorching ponderosa pines from crown to root. Once titans, they are now matchsticks.
Pola Lopez gestures in their direction, southward toward Hermits Peak.
Outside of the Glorieta Adventure Camp dining hall, 56-year-old Lisa Blackburde was having an emotion-filled conversation with a couple of other evacuees.
Nearly three weeks ago, as the fast-moving Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire made a run toward her home near Ledoux, Blackburde heeded a mandatory evacuation order that had already been in place for days. Her boyfriend, Michael Pacheco, remained behind to save what he could. “He was a seasonal firefighter for the state,” she said, “so he knows what he’s doing.” They have a horse, a dog, 13 cows and three new calves. “And four of the cows are still expecting.”
This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. If Pacheco hadn’t stayed to put out spot fires, she was sure it would have all gone up in flames.
FARMINGTON — On Oct. 21, 1921, residents in Farmington heard a hissing roar as a natural gas well 10 miles upriver blew skyward — the debut of the first commercial well in the coal-bed formation known as the San Juan Basin. This stream of natural gas would transform northwestern New Mexico from a sleepy agricultural region to a community that triumphantly built itself on fossil fuels. But in October 2021, exactly one week and 100 years after this first lucky strike, a conference held to commemorate the first century of oil and gas development in the basin was decidedly less triumphant. Speakers at the San Juan Basin Energy Conference talked of a “tumultuous decade” in the basin and of the “worst downturn in the San Juan Basin’s history.”