We used to live in Tucumcari, New Mexico. In 1977, my Father broke his back and we discovered that our Newspaper Corporation would have to declare bankruptcy – that was on December 21st. On December 23rd, we were sitting with our Editor at our home south of town. The house had no windows on it’s west side and was entirely glass on the east. As we sat, discussing the fate of our business (with 45 mph winds whipping across the dry, native grasses that surrounded us), my brother and I asked each other several times, “Do you smell smoke?”…
I was looking out the back, toward Tucumcari Mountain when suddenly, the whole world was on fire. The feeling cannot be described. I screamed, we all ran out the front door and the sight was like Hades itself. Flames were leaping over parked vehicles, licking up trees and whirling full speed across the native pasture of our 40 acres right for the huge wooden barn full of shavings and our beloved horses.
There was a mare with her foal, two young stallions, more mares and many geldings, a small pony and a half Draft horse. They were trapped and all I could think was, “RUN”. And I did. All I can figure is that I can run at over 45 mph because I beat the flames to the barn. I threw open the garage door at the south end and began opening stall doors frantically. Each horse trotted (some galloped) out of their stall and out onto the 40 acres. The blessing was that I had always just opened stall doors to let them out onto the (now dry) pasture and they simply ran on out from habit.
When they all had gone out, I slammed the end door shut and ran, gasping, to the well house. I opened all the taps and started hosing down the building as my brother and my Mum caught up with me. The horses were confused but not panicked. They gathered in little groups on bare patches of land and the fires rolled around them, the air full of red and black smoke.
We could not see past 20 meters into the smoke and the heat was overwhelming. I pulled my shirt off and wrapped it around my face to breathe through it. Crying, praying, cursing and trying to breathe, I watched embers landing on the roof of the giant barn. What saved the barn, besides the flood of water we were pouring all over it, was the thick coating my Mum had had applied to the (leaking) roof the previous summer. It was, in retrospect, not flammable!
I remember vomiting twice, coughing up blood later, and my eyes swelling almost shut as we suddenly thought about our house! I stayed with the horses. My Mum and brother ran back to the house – it was dark like evening time (at mid-afternoon). I later heard the story of how my Grandmother, Mum and Brother and our Editor used hoses until the home well ran dry, then used buckets to throw water from the swimming pool onto the trees, bushes, under cars and onto the roof of the house. It was surreal.
As I collapsed in the dirt by the barn, too dry to cry anymore, through the smoke, I saw the flashing lights of fire trucks racing across the fields – they just rammed through the wire fences, sirens screaming, and screeched up to the barn to douse it with water then head to our neighbor’s house. More arrived, as the fire burned out on our land, and began soaking the huge manure pile (far enough from the barn) that was now smoldering. Embers were flying everywhere.
I realized that the horses were now loose and most of the fences were down… but they stayed clustered on familiar land and were unnaturally calm. In shock, I suppose, I knew I was.
We later found out that an RV caught fire and kept driving, setting fire to 3 counties of dry grass and brush. The incident made the national news where they said no homes nor humans were threatened – many of us were enraged by that statement!
As things settled and the fully soaked, sopping wet barn seemed safe, I began catching the horses and putting them into their stalls. It was night, the electricity was off, it was getting cold and I was exhausted. The family gathered to assess the situation. We decided that I would sleep in a car driven down and parked beside the barn. Dotted all across the countryside were glowing, smoldering cedar fence posts that looked like thousands of campfires in the distance. And the huge, composted manure pile glowed like a flying saucer. It was terrifying. Over the next few weeks, road equipment kept coming out to grade through that pile and fire trucks came to soak it, over and over. Manure is amazing fuel.
I spent each night in that car for a week and we spent the days repairing fences so we could turn horses out again. Every now and then, at night, I would see a distant Mesquite tree or Chaparral blaze up and burn out over several hours. Late nights were when I could see the extent of the lingering fires… Day time was when the charcoal encrusted vistas showed the damage. My brother and I walked the land with shovels, putting out every smoking discovery, hoping to see less fires the next night.
I have faced other wildfires through the decades, some bigger even, some hotter, some in forests – nothing ever felt so overwhelming as the one in Tucumcari when I realized that all of my horses were standing, trusting, in my wooden barn, bedded in dry wood shavings with that raging fire heading full speed straight for them. Even now, if I smell smoke, my fight or flight response kicks in.