Yesterday I went out to take some trash to the bin down the street and looked up as I always do to admire the peak of Sierra Blanca, a dozen miles west and 5,000 feet higher than our front door.
Instead, my eye was drawn to a plume of white smoke, rising from behind the second pine-covered ridge line between me and the mountain. A fire, no more than six or eight miles away.
Just the day before we got a terrific soaking from a thunderstorm that might have been the first of the summer monsoon season here. But such storms are a mixed blessing in drought-ridden western states like New Mexico, because of lightning.
Once again, there wasn’t enough snow here over the winter to produce a healthy spring runoff, so the forests continue to be dry as tinder, and lightning poses a mortal danger to any creature who lives in the woods. Such as myself.
I went back inside to see if the state forest service knew something was burning within single-digit miles of Ruidoso. Yes, there was an alert. Lightning the night before struck a “snag,” which the wildfire glossary defines as a standing dead tree.
The online notice, emailed to anyone who joins the state distribution list, said a firefighting team was on its way to what they were calling the South Fork fire, and in the meantime a helicopter from the Mescalero Apache reservation was monitoring the burn and dropping water on it.
I could hear aircraft engines overhead. Going outside again, I saw the chopper dangling what looked like a tiny bucket above and upwind of the source of the smoke. Suddenly it exploded in spray, and the helicopter turned and sped off downwind to the northeast for another load.
There were several fixed wing planes in the air as well, making wide loops over the forest that brought some of them directly over our place. Then I saw one of them make a low approach to the plume and release a cloud of reddish retardant much bigger than the copter produced. That’s more like it, I thought.
Then my mind flashed on newsphotos I’d seen not long ago of weeping homeowners picking through the remains of their former dreamhouses and describing how they had barely escaped with their lives.
We were refugees ourselves almost exactly two years ago from the Little Bear fire. This one was a lot closer. Driven by 25-mile-an-hour winds and gusts twice that hard, it appeared to me that if it got out of hand it would move well north of us. Unless the wind shifted. Like it does so often.
The only previous thought I had given to a getaway plan was that we should certainly take the trailer, not just to save it but to live in it. Now I imagined myself in panic mode trying to get my two-inch hitch ball centered under the Airstream’s tongue.
Then I went and got the car keys and backed the Equinox into position, so if we had to flee we only had to drop the trailer a few inches onto the hitch and go. No, wait, first unplug the power and disconnect the water hose. Then go. It only took me about five minutes of backing and filling, much better than it would have with smoke up my nose.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on folding chairs in front of the trailer, watching the planes drop their loads, checking for fresh alerts and trying to judge whether the smoke plume was growing, shrinking or holding its own.
Neighbors had asked us to dinner. By suppertime, it still looked safe enough to go up the street and join them in their own smoke watch from their deck. By dessert, it was clear the suppression effort was succeeding, and the last alert of the night confirmed they were now “mopping up.”
Disaster comes suddenly from nowhere. Yesterday we got to see it change its mind and go back. Today we bought another first aid kit for the second car and talked about preparing a “go bag.” Pam wants to put my mom's wall clock in it, so we'll probably talk some more.