One SmartPaker’s story of life in the path of a wildfire
As I sit at my desk at SmartPak, my mind is consumed with pieces of information during a typical busy day. I’m buzzing with ship dates, supplement questions, and emails. The phone rings and it is a customer from New Mexico, the state where I have spent the majority of my life before my relocation to Massachusetts two years ago with my fiancé. The high elevation desert where I grew up is home to an endless deep blue sky that reaches for miles. This is the state where I was taught to ride by my patient Arabian gelding Kashtan. Like my great grandfather who ranched in the Southwest a hundred years ago, I have seen the prettiest places from the back of a horse.
The news has been reporting extreme drought back home, and my friends and family report a new wildfire almost every day. Wildfire is normal and even healthy in the Southwest, but these are a new breed of wildfires that are ten times more destructive thanks to years of overgrown forests and prolonged drought.
As I gaze back out the window at Plymouth, the stark emerald green of Massachusetts still surprises me. I think of all the rain I have seen in the last month (probably more than New Mexico gets in a wet year) and wish I could send some of it home. Maybe if we could have had some of this rain 12 years ago, the Cerro Grande Fire wouldn’t have happened.
I think back to when I was 14 years old. I was homeschooled that year, and despite a small control burn in the Jemez Mountains that has cradled Los Alamos since its birth, we decided a family vacation was needed. Prescribed burns are common in the spring in New Mexico, and our town and my family went about business as usual, after all, weather conditions had perfectly prepared the Jemez Mountains for ignition.
But just six days after the control burn was started, my parents and I sat in front of my grandparent’s television as the Denver news showed multiple air tankers dropping fire retardant slurry on the mountains and stated that an evacuation had been declared for the main town site of Los Alamos. Our neighboring suburb of White Rock hadn’t been evacuated yet. We watched with butterflies in our stomach as policeman directed traffic out of town with ash falling around them. Helicopter footage showed our familiar mountains engulfed in a brown cloud so large and expansive that it blocked out the sun and rose up like a ghost covering Los Alamos in its shadow.
We threw our luggage in the car to get home. As we raced down the highway, our thoughts were not only on the people leaving their homes, but on our animals, including my Arabian gelding, right in harm’s way. What we didn’t know and wouldn’t hear about until later was that the fire went out of control so quickly, that many people had left their animals at home while they left town to go shopping. They, of course, raced home to get their animals only to be turned away at the town entrance by emergency personnel.
We stopped in Durango, Colorado, for the night and rushed to turn on the news in our hotel room. Instead of trees burning, this time structures were burning. Home after home engulfed in flames flashed before our eyes.
In the early morning hours, the phone rang, shocking us out of our sleep. It was my grandmother, who had stayed up to watch the news. I waited in the dark, wondering what was going on. Then I heard my dad say, “Oh my goodness!” in the dark. White Rock was being put under a mandatory evacuation and our animals were still there. This time, I swear, my heart stopped beating.
We immediately called our neighbors, who had experience with horses, and were relieved to find out that our horse was already in a trailer. Additionally, the four cats, one dog, two birds, and a rogue hamster that has free run of one entire room had been carefully packed away in their respective evacuation vehicles.
In the end, we were lucky. Our animals were taken to safety by diligent neighbors and the entire suburb of White Rock was spared. The main town site of Los Alamos, however, was not so fortunate. Over 200 families lost their homes and many of those homes had pets inside. This was a tragedy etched into our minds and hearts forever, a sober reminder of how quickly Mother Nature can take what we hold dear.
Fast forward 11 years to the summer of 2011, and the Cerro Grande fire had become less of a wound and more of a healed scar for our town. I was back in Los Alamos and working remotely for SmartPak during a summer visit home. It was one of the driest summers on record, an extension of an ongoing drought that just seems unwilling to leave the Southwest alone. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and then out of the blue my dad’s cell phone rings. My dad goes quiet and then I hear him say, “Oh my goodness.” I should learn that this phrase is never a good one.
Both my dad and I hop out of our chairs in unison and run into our front yard. Surrounding us 360 degrees on the horizon is dark smoke that is so thick it has hidden the sun.
“Not again,” I thought.
We headed over to the barn to check on the horse. Kashtan had passed a few years after Cerro Grande, and my new horse, Luna, was now standing in the same corral. He had been my steady companion through high school and college, and I looked over him with protective eyes as he stood silhouetted against the new fire in the distance.
My mind flashed back to the images on the television 11 years earlier and I realized this is déjà vu. I might soon become a repeat evacuee.
This is when I started going through my mental escape list in my head:
1) Truck and trailer? Check.
2) Does the truck have enough gas in case we get stuck in traffic that is imminent in an evacuation? Check.
3) Are Luna’s hay and SmartPaks in the trailer? Check (as I run across the barnyard frantically).
4) Do I have Banamine in case Luna colics from the stress of an evacuation? Dang it. I let it expire.
5) Do we have somewhere to take Luna if an evacuation is necessary? Better start calling people.
6) Do we have all of Luna’s paperwork for travel? Check, we always keep that in the truck.
7) Are we ready to leave at a moment’s notice? Nope, family pictures and the cat are still back at the house. Not to mention the fiancé is at his parent’s house. Can’t forget him.
8) Do we have enough supplies for Luna in case an evacuation lasts over a week like the last one? Check.
9) Do we leave now and know we get out in time, or do we wait it out and risk our one escape road get cut off by fire? Anyone have a crystal ball? I lost mine.
10) If it came down to running and leaving the horse behind, or staying with the horse, which would I chose? I’m sure you don’t need many guesses to figure that one out.
The Las Conchas Fire, as we came to know it, burned about 43,000 acres in just that first day. The Cerro Grande Fire burned roughly 42,000 acres over the course of several weeks. The main town site of Los Alamos was once again evacuated, but White Rock was not. For the first time ever, we were thankful for the path that the Cerro Grande Fire had cleared as it helped protect our town and slow the fire. No Los Alamos houses were lost and our animals were, thankfully, safe.
I look up from my thoughts and I’m back in Plymouth. A place so different that my experience with the Las Conchas and Cerro Grande fires could have very well been a dream, albeit a very bad one. One year after the Las Conchas Fire, the droughts continue in many parts of the country, including back home. As multiple wildfires burn now in the western US, I realize I interact with many animal owners on a daily basis, and wonder how many of them could be affected by these wildfires or other natural disasters? Would they be ready? Would their horses be safe?
We all love our horses, our dogs, our rogue hamsters, but are we prepared to protect from harm if Mother Nature were to come knocking? As someone who has had to face the reality of possibly losing my own horse to natural disaster (twice), I’d encourage you to use some of your vacation time this summer to set an emergency plan in place so you and your horse can be ready at a moment’s notice. Go through the checklist I went through in my head: Does your truck always have gas? Do you have enough hay for a trip? Are your medications current or are they expired? Do you have all the paperwork your horse needs to travel? In the meantime, my trailer back home is ready for action, and as for me, I’m going to go bottle some rain and send it home.
A note from SmartPak: Do you have an evacuation plan? What does it look like? What’s on your checklist? Tell us in the comments or on our wall at Facebook.com/SmartPakEquine. Here’s to a safe and happy summer!