This week, our small weekly newspaper shifted into high gear as we covered the Dog Head Fire on a daily news cycle, posting stories as we reported on them on our website throughout the day.
Nearly every member of The Independent’s staff was affected by the outbreak of this fire, with both of my daughters—along with their partners, my grandson, six dogs and four cats—moved into my place as the fire moved rapidly Tuesday night. That was after our normal production day, which typically lasts at least 12 hours.
Our bookkeeper and production guy are married, and live one road away from the mandatory evacuation zone. As the fire got closer, blowing up to 12,000 acres, they cut the trees on their property to create a defensible space and moved their herd of dairy goats and other animals to safety. They hunkered down and watched the fire.
Our new ad sales representative, on board with The Independent for only a few weeks now, also lives in the area and was one road away from the mandatory evacuation zone doing the same.
The Dog Head Fire affected this small newspaper directly and profoundly.
In spite of that, I hit the road Wednesday, providing updates on our website in real time as conditions changed rapidly. Reporting I did last week had a total reach of 70,000, with one video I posted of the fire exploding on the ridge in the distance had a reach of 27,000.
I did the same again Thursday.
On Friday and Saturday, I went out with my 10-year old grandson, now dubbed Junior Reporter, and we went again to visit the shelters, and we attended two public meetings. One of those nights I posted my last story at 3 a.m.
On Sunday, with fire behavior fairly quiet, I fell asleep at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and slept for 18 hours.
Finally, on Monday, we got the news everyone had been waiting for: containment estimated at 46 percent, and the beginning of people returning to their homes after a long and uncertain week.
During this crisis, all of my kids helped out with this newspaper. As a family-owned business, I needed all hands on deck, and even my grandson pitched in, shooting photos at the shelters and along the route and even doing his own write-up for the paper. Today as we do production they are here again, even as they wait to re-enter their own homes.
What I saw as I was out and about covering the story was the same as what was happening in my personal life, writ large: The community coming together rapidly, effectively and lovingly.
At the shelter in Estancia, the CERT volunteers who were on hand were looking pretty haggard after three or four days of non-stop work. They had been making sure that the many animals housed there had food and water and were as comfortable as possible. When word went out that they needed donations of food, they were buried in a mountain of food for people and animals. When word went out they needed able bodies to help with animals, many volunteers showed up. When they said they needed an ATV, one was delivered an hour after the request was made.
In Tijeras, the Red Cross received so many donations they sent out an email asking people to stop making donations and asking for money instead. At the shelter in Tijeras, donations brought in were diverted to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s department.
People all over the state, but especially here in the East Mountains and Estancia Valley, offered the use of trailers, vehicles, land to quarter livestock and other animals, veterinary care, and all other manner of help.
All of that is aside from the 1,000 or so fire personnel who are here from around the West and even Mexico—and who jumped on suppression of this fire with vigor, getting it mostly in hand in the space of a week. To them we owe tremendous thanks.
Even though as the days wore on there were reports of looters trying to take advantage of the situation, by far most responses were people—mostly perfect strangers—looking for ways to help their neighbors.
The concern that this community of animal lovers expressed for animals involved in the evacuation or even left behind was extraordinary, with deputies going in to the evacuation zone to care for animals when residents were not allowed back in.
This is the kind of community I want to live in, and it’s why I’m happy I live here. We may bicker and disagree, but like a family, when it matters we pull together and do what needs to be done.
The last word on this is that even though the fire is not yet put out, as I write the danger is much reduced and life is starting to return to normal. Everyone in the newspaper’s family and my children and their families are safe, and their homes are still standing. We are blessed.
At this writing, there has been no loss of life and no major injuries reported as a result of the Dog Head Fire.
However, we are well aware that 24 homes burned down.
I am fully confident that after the TV crews find the next thing to circle around, the East Mountains and Estancia Valley will continue to care for one another as the recovery from this disaster continues for years to come. What a great community to live in.