Clouds of black and white smoke billowed over the bosque Thursday afternoon as a fire beneath devoured brush, trees and homes.
As the bosque comes into view a few miles north of Rio Communities, a haze of smoke hung over the Rio Grande early last Friday morning.
At Security Iron Works, Jessy Graham and his father are inspecting the damage from a wildfire that started on the other side of the river that ripped through their rural neighborhood last Thursday.
“I’ve seen river fires my whole life,” Jessy said. “We saw the smoke and with the winds, we started wetting everything down.”
Despite their best efforts, the home of Jessy’s great-grandmother was completely destroyed by the blaze, which was rapidly pushed by strong winds from the west side of the river into the subdivision on Joty Road.
His parent’s home also took heavy damage from the flames, as well as water damage from fire suppression efforts.
“They let my parents go back in when it was safe to get pictures and stuff,” Jessy said. “But my great-grandmother’s house was totally lost. It’s where I grew up.”
Firefighters stopped the blaze at the business property on N.M. 47, thus giving the fire its name — the Iron Works Fire.
“They worked like hell to save my business, save the shop,” Jessy said.
He did lose equipment critical to his business — a forklift and welder.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’ve got to work. I have seven jobs lined up,” he said Friday morning.
Eddy and Kim Graham, Jessy’s parents, are staying in a fifth-wheel trailer at his home in Jarales. Eddy, who recently had lung surgery, coughed heavily as he looked over the rubble that used to be storage sheds.
Eddy got home just after 3 p.m. that day, just in time to see the fire break through the bosque in multiple places.
“The woman in the house in front of ours just got out with her dog and purse,” Eddy said. “But at least she got out. You can rebuild from there.”
Across the ditch to the west of the Grahams property, Gary and Jessica Guinn, who are expecting their son, and their daughter, Alabama, lost everything — from their home to tools, their vehicles and even cherished family pets.
Two separate GoFundMe campaigns (click here and here) have been started for the family, and in three days raised $17,740 of the $25,000 cumulative goal.
In total, Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp said the Iron Works Fire burned nearly 139 acres, destroying three homes and various outbuildings, and damaging a fourth home. As of Tuesday night, the fire was at 90 percent contained.
“The Red Cross and county emergency management were doing assessments on Saturday,” Culp said. “The cause is still under investigation. The state fire marshal is handling the investigation.”
Agencies responding to the fire included all Valencia County districts, the U.S. Forest Service, state forestry personnel and units and personnel from Socorro, Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, as well as from the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
“Everyone did a fantastic job with a very highly stressful fire due to the winds on Thursday,” Culp said. “Our main priorities were evacuations and making sure no one got hurt. There were no civilian injuries that I know of and I am very happy about that.”
Two firefighters were transported to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
The chief said the fire could have resulted in the loss of more structures if it there hadn’t been a focus on strong structure protection early during the fight.
“Unfortunately, the homes that were already involved stayed involved. We had to set up a priority system to save as much property as we could,” Culp said. “It’s heartbreaking to lose any home.”
On Friday, incident commander Steven Griego, with the New Mexico State Forestry, said extremely high winds drove the fire that started on the west side of the Rio Grande, into the bosque and across the river.
“The fire jumped the river (to the east) in multiple places and pushed it into the subdivision,” Griego said.
The fire swept through fields east of the river, running north of the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, and was stopped near N.M. 47 and Joty Road. The fire did not cross the highway.
“It was pretty active all (Thursday) night long; it was a good fight,” Griego said. “We got a lot of good work done while the heat of the day was gone. We worked on establishing and building up containment lines, especially near structures. Today we are mopping up and securing.”
Friday was another day of windy conditions, with speeds of 20-30 mph and gusts of 40-60 mph, but fire lines established the night before held, and continued to hold through Friday night despite worsening weather.
“Friday night, the winds were horrid and it was also hailing,” the chief said. “Not only did the crews do a fantastic job but the community did a fantastic job; the support for both the firefighters and the victims has been incredible.”
The La Merced Moose Lodge in Rio Communities prepared meals for the firefighters and people who were displaced by the fire, as did the nearby coffee shop, which began cooking and serving free meals to crews at 5:30 a.m. Friday. Rutilio’s sent its mobile kitchen over to the Del Rio Plaza to provide meals for the firefighters as well.
The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter at the Del Rio Senior Center.
Red Cross disaster program specialist Sandra Darling-Roberts said four residents stayed at the shelter Thursday night, with about 20 volunteer firefighters using the center for respite during the night.
“We are still assessing the community needs and coordinating resources,” Darling-Roberts said. “We will be here as long as we are needed.”
She said the shelter has an abundance of food and water and urged community members who would like to donate food, water, clothing, toiletries or other items to help those who lost their homes to the fire or have been displaced to work directly with local groups.
The Rio Communities Cornerstone Church is coordinating the distribution of donations dropped off at Morgan’s Cakes and More, located in Oasis Plaza, 480 Rio Communities Blvd.
The Building Blocks Learning Center, 303 W. Reinken Ave., in Belen, is also accepting donations for those effected by the fire.
Rio Communities City Councilor Bill Brown reported the Moose Lodge provided dinner to those staying at the shelter Thursday night, and the Valencia County Older Americans Program provided breakfast and lunch on Friday.
Without meaning to, Morgan Nesslage, owner of Morgan’s Cakes and More in Rio Communities, started a donation drive for the fire victims.
“I know Gary and Jess, so I just posted something on Facebook, ‘Hey guys, let’s collect some stuff,’ and it went from there,” Nesslage.
“There” is a bakery full of bags of clothes, baby items, household items and more. Nesslage said while the Guinn’s have been the focus of many of the donations, she wanted the community to help all the families impacted by the fire.
“This is about more than one family,” she said. “The Grahams lost their place. Others have water damage and no electricity, smoke damage. It might be months before they can get back into their homes. There are a lot of people affected.”
Donations have been so copious the Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene in Rio Communities has opened up its building to allow Nesslage to store larger items, such as furniture.
“People lost everything. Think about all the things in your home — cleaning supplies, microwaves, food, a can opener to open the food,” she said. “People still need shoes. A bunch were donated but none of them were the right size for anyone.”
The Home Depot in Los Lunas and ACE Hardware in Belen have donated cases of water and rolls of plastic to protect large items from inclement weather.
Items, such as toothbrushes, body wash, towels, soap, shampoo, socks and underwear, are still needed, she said.
Nesslage is posting regularly to her personal Facebook page and to the bakery’s page with updated lists of items needed and pictures of donations.
Donations of clean, usable items can be brought to Morgans Cakes and More.
“The response from the community has been amazing. The outpouring has been great,” Nesslage said. “I’ll be here until the donations stop.”
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.