Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
The Big Hole Fire on Monday scorched about 850 acres, burned about 19 structures and caused residents to voluntarily evacuate the area, not knowing what they’d find when they returned home.

(Editor’s note: Updated conditions of the Big Hole Fire were released after News-Bulletin press time on Wednesday, April 13. There is information in this article that does not appear in the print version.)

Structures were lost — at least one a home — the land was scorched and the bosque was ablaze as high winds swept a wildfire through 904 acres of Valencia County on Monday afternoon and into Tuesday.

The Big Hole Fire, named for a popular fishing spot, was first discovered on the west side of the Rio Grande about 100 feet north of the River Road bridge, but as the winds picked up, the flames moved north and jumped the river to the east.

Valencia County Fire Chief Matthew Propp said within 15 minutes of crews being called out, the flames jumped the river.

“The first to respond was Rio Communities Fire Department and they made a great decision and quickly called for support,” Propp said. “The fire, with the winds, moved very quickly.”

Photo courtesy of Andrew Hautzinger
Many people were forced to evacuate their homes as flames encroached near their properties Monday.

The investigation into the cause of the massive blaze began Tuesday, as investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and its bosque arson unit arrived in the county.

As the fire was pushed northeast by high winds, residents in the path of the fire were advised to evacuate. As firefighters battled the blaze, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office deployed two evacuation units to help citizens leave areas affected by the fire.

Heavy smoke on N.M. 47 resulted in the highway being closed from Rio Communities north to Tomé Hill Road late Monday afternoon into the evening, but as the winds calmed, it and the river bridge between Rio Communities and Belen were reopened shortly after 9 p.m.

Several local organizations, such as the Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse, mobilized to provide safe havens for livestock, as well as companion animals. The Valencia County Animal Control staff were on call during the height of the blaze to take dogs and cats to the shelter in Los Lunas.

On Tuesday evening, favorable weather and wind conditions helped the more than 100 fire personnel on the ground make progress in establishing containment lines. They were joined by an Arizona hot shot team Wednesday and by the end of the day, fire officials were able to announce the fire was at 40 percent containment.

Valencia County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Joseph Rowland said the fire was pushed back from the area near Sedillo and Silva roads in Adelino, on the east side of the Rio Grande.

Rowland said there were no residential structures threatened on Wednesday evening, and there were no planned evacuations or planned road closures for the next operational period, from 6 p.m., Wednesday, April 13, to 6 a.m., Thursday, April 14.

Conditions will be reevaluated on Thursday morning.

In order to let fire crews continue their suppression efforts of the Big Hole Fire in the bosque, local law enforcement officials, in cooperation with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, have closed all river access points from the village of Los Lunas to south to the city of Belen.

All ditchbank access roads and points of entry are closed to the public, according to a press release sent out by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday afternoon.

This closure includes both east and west side access points along the river. The closed areas are from the Belen river bridge north to the Los Lunas river bridge.

These roads and access points are currently for official government use only. Any pedestrian or vehicle traffic caught in the area will be directed to immediately depart, and repeat offenders will be cited.

“We appreciate the communities support in this matter as our first responders continue to protect lives and property,” Rowland said.

Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo
Elena Chilelli sits with her dog, Coco, at the Belen Community Center after evacuating her home Monday.

For nearby residents, the smoke and flames got too close for comfort earlier this week and many decided to evacuate, not knowing if they would return to their homes or find them in ashes.

Richard and Elena Chilelli were at home Monday as he was getting ready to leave for a dental appointment.

“I had just woken up from a nap and my wife comes in and asks me, ‘What’s that smoke?’” Richard said. “I walk outside and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a 50-foot tall plume of smoke and flames equally as tall. It was an inferno.”

The Chilellis live on Manzano Drive, just east of the river and west of N.M. 47. When they realized what was happening, they ran inside to try and gather up their animals.

“The cats got scared and ran under the bed,” Richard said. “I only got one cat, Blue. I left the front door open so hopefully they’ll run out.

“I was running out of air. I couldn’t save them,” he said. “I had no time, not to mention we were panicking because (the fire) was so close to us. I love those cats like my kids. I was trying to grab the cats, but I couldn’t breathe. Three of them are probably dead right now. We’re praying the cats got out and ran away.”

The couple was also able to take their Chihuahua, Coco.

Chilelli said he couldn’t believe how thick the smoke was, and nearly passed out just steps before he got into the car.

“At one point, it was doable, and I wasn’t sure we were going to evacuate, but it spread so fast, the plumes got so thick,” Richard said. “When we left, the fire was on the west side of the ditchbank.”

Elena said they only had about 10 minutes to get out.

“I took my dog, my computer and some pictures,” Elena said. “I wasn’t scared at first because it happened so fast. (Richard) was screaming that we couldn’t stay home. It wasn’t until we drove out that I started panicking.”

The couple left their home and made their way to the Belen Community Center, where evacuees were welcomed. After resting for a while, they were able to book a hotel room in Los Lunas.

Photo courtesy of Angela Cano
Firefighters worked throughout the night to try and contain the Big Hole Fire.

Their neighbors, Benjamin Occhino and his family, were also at home when the fire erupted.

“I was home, getting ready for the day, and my wife came and let me know there was smoke and flames across the street,” Benjamin said. “I went to take a look, and literally the whole ditchbank was engulfed in flames. It was maybe about 500 yards away — flames and smoke.”

It was then that he saw Valencia and Socorro county firefighters, who let them know it was time to evacuate.

“We had to get our animals —  a cat and dog — and got some clothes, some money and some important documents,” he said. “We threw everything in our cars and met up at Smith’s in Los Lunas.

“It was pretty horrific. It’s devastating knowing that everything can be taken away in such a short amount of time,” Occhino said on Monday. “It could be the last time we ever go back to that house. We’ve lived there for about five years.”

Occhino said they were able to talk to their neighbors before they left, and they were trying to get their livestock to safety.

“We don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know if we have a house, we just know we’re safe and that’s the most important thing,” he said.

Occhino and his family also went to the Belen Community Center for shelter, but said he was going to talk to his wife and regroup. They have family in Albuquerque and were contemplating staying with them or get a hotel if necessary.

One of the hardest hit areas of the Big Hole Fire was the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area. Andrew Hautzinger, the district director for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, said about 85-90 percent of the 90 acres was blackened.

Julia M. Dendinger| News-Bulletin photo
Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area was hit hard by the Big Hole Fire on Monday. The district director estimated 85-90 percent of the area was burned.

“How much is severe or just grass, we don’t know yet,” Hautzinger said of the fire. “But the entire conservation area got burned.”

As he was speaking to the News-Bulletin a little after 5 p.m. Monday, he was watching a handful of flare ups on the property as well as part of the fence line burning.

“We were a staging area for the fire crews,” Hautzinger said. “The vast majority of work is north of here.”

As he watched the flames rip through the conservation area, Hautzinger said the WWCA’s Visitor’s Center is safe as well as the maintenance building, but the area around the pond was burned, knocking back all the cattails.

Photo courtesy of Alecia Cargile
Students at La Merced Elementary in Rio Communities were released early Monday due to the nearby Big Hole Fire.

“I’m not sure what will happen to the ecosystem now,” Hautzinger said. “It’s similar to the 2019 Ironworks Fire … It jumped the river and last time it just touched us on the edge of the Stacy Unit, which is 43 acres. It was a lot of grass and small shrubbery, and a couple of big cottonwoods died.”

When asked about the upcoming Earth Day events at the property, Hautzinger said no decisions have been made, and the event might be scaled down.

The Ironworks Fire was one of two significant bosque fires that burned through the valley in recent years, consuming 139 acres. That fire started west of the river as well, at a home on Los Chapulinas off of Gabaldon Road after a homeowner dumped hot ashes outside in the days prior to the fire. Four homes were destroyed in the Ironworks Fire.

In June 2021, the Cemetery Fire started on the east side of the Rio Grande, just north of the N.M. 346 bridge over the river, then jumped to the west side of the Rio Grande. The fire burned 319 acres; no homes were lost to that blaze but two outbuildings did burn.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Hautzinger
Helicopter crews used the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area as a staging area during Monday’s fire.

During a media briefing Tuesday, Propp said preliminary reports indicated the Big Hole Fire damaged 19 structures, including at least one home.

As firefighters continued their work on and near the river, the city of Belen stepped up, opening the community center to evacuees. Belen Parks and Recreation Director Joshua Kerns said they turned the center into a shelter for displaced families.

“We’re using the gymnasium for people to come in, sleep and get rest. The American Red Cross and Los Lunas Fire Department are bringing in cots for people to sleep,” Kerns said. “The community center is also opening up its showers to families.”

The multi-use room was used as a dining room for people who have had to evacuate to sit and have a meal.

A medical room, manned by the Los Lunas Fire Department, was also set up at the center for people who might be feeling ill from affects of the smoke.

Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez was at the Belen Community Center Monday afternoon as several students were taken there to wait for their parents to pick them up.

“We were asked to evacuate but we released students early,” Sanchez said. “We sent out a message to parents to come get their students, and those who were on the bus and about 20 students who live in the area of N.M. 47, ended up at the community center. We didn’t want to add to the traffic in the area.”

Several residents at the Center for Ageless Living, a senior assisted living facility on N.M. 47 in Tomé, voluntarily evacuated and came to the center around 9:30 p.m. Monday, due to respiratory concerns from the smoke.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.

Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.