Dog Head Fire one year later: The lessons learned and how residents are rebuilding

Dog Head Fire
Dog Head Fire KRQE File Photo

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M (KRQE) – This week marks one year since one of the biggest wild land fires in recent New Mexico history. The Dog Head Fire began its path of destruction through the Manzano Mountains, eventually scorching 18,000 acres and destroying 12 homes.

Residents and fire officials that KRQE News 13 spoke with felt like there needed to be more communication during last year’s fire. KRQE News 13 has learned since the fire, there’s been a lot of discussions about how to help agencies work together better and keep people safe.

For eight days, Ernest Gonzales was forced to leave his livelihood behind. Escaping the Dog Head Fire would cost the owner of the Ten Points General Store in Tijeras nearly $20,000. Gonzales estimates it was $15,000 in lost sales and nearly $6,000 in lost products.

It’s just one of the losses residents in East Mountains were forced to recover from after the catastrophic Dog Head Fire.

“The people that rebuilt, they’re so traumatized they don’t even want to talk about,” said Gonzales.

One year later, Gonzales says he and the other residents in the Tijeras-Chilili area are still on edge, fearful that another forest fire could ignite at any moment.

‘What people are doing is if they smell smoke they panic right away,” said Gonzales.

Fortunately for Gonzales and everybody else in the East Mountains, fire officials say so far, it’s not nearly as dry this year, as it was last year at this time. But they also say it’s not a matter of if, but when another fire is going to spark.

IFF Local 244 Vice President Robert Sanchez believes crews in Bernalillo County and surrounding counties weren’t as prepared as they thought they were in 2016. Going forward, he says there needs to be an evacuation plan in place for all of the agencies involved.

“Surrounding counties, the city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County firefighters, need to train on evacuation plans and on how exactly to work together,” said Sanchez.

But Bernalillo County Fire Marshal Chris Gober says there can’t be just one generic evacuation plan and that each evacuation is dependent on the situation.

“We do have a plan in place but the evacuation is going to be situational dependent meaning depending on where the fire is at or the intensity of the fire is, going to dictate how we evacuate people and where we evacuate to,” said Gober.

To address this issue, local emergency crews have been holding meetings with state and federal agencies over the last several months to discuss evacuations.

“We’ve had meetings over the last month with the U.S. Forest Service, the State Forest Service and our own fire department on evacuations and what we do in the event that we do have something in the East Mountains. I think we are coming together and getting more coordination,” said Richard Clark, Bernalillo County Emergency Manager.

Even commissioner Wayne Johnson is getting involved. He says there needs to be a mutual aid agreement in place to work with neighboring counties like Torrance County.

“It’s probably something that wasn’t contemplated. How fast are we going to respond and in what circumstances and when is it required that we wait until there’s some sort of response on their side, what dictates asking for mutual aid from Bernalillo County,” said Johnson.

Johnson says this is something he’s been studying over the past year. He’s not sure when an agreement like this will happen but has been told that officials plan to review agreements like this.

The Bernalillo County Fire Department has recently put into place a dedicated Wildland Coordinator. His duties are to update policies and equipment, to make sure training is getting completed as needed, and making sure they’re prepared as a department.

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