Community stresses resilience after wildfire

Visitors walk by a mural in late May. The Village of Ruidoso is recovering from the McBride Fire that hit the community in mid-April. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Second in a two-part series

RUIDOSO – Kristen Hall remembers the day the McBride Fire started like it was yesterday.

That day, April 12, Hall was at the Canyon Hideaway & Escape RV camp, which she helps manage with family members, and the winds were blowing so hard they felt like a hurricane.

The wind knocked out the power on the grounds of the RV camp, located in Gavilan Canyon, including at a single-family home that the Hall family uses as a secondary residence. She tried calling her father-in-law Robby Hall, who owns the business, but was unable to reach him due to the cell service being out.

Hall turned her attention back to working on the house, which the family was remodeling at the time, but the smell of a fire encapsulated the structure. At first, Hall said, she thought it was a camp fire started by visitors staying on the property.

Then she turned and looked out the opaque bathroom window. All she saw was “bright orange.” The fire had come down the hill toward the RV camp and the residence, traveling hundreds of feet in a matter of minutes.

“It just looked like being in a volcano – like just ash falling from the sky,” she said. “It was super scary.”

The Halls lost everything – including most equipment for Robby Hall’s tree business, TLC Trees. At the end, Ruidoso’s McBride fire burned nearly 6,200 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes and left two people dead.

Rebuilding the family’s two businesses from the ground up has not been easy, said Robby Hall.

But “we’re Halls,” he said, and all Halls do is move forward.

It’s an attitude on regular display in the southern New Mexico mountain town of nearly 8,000, which most years serves as a summer getaway for crowds of Texans and others seeking escape from the heat.

“This community, we’ve been through fires before, floods before, freezes before, depressions – all that,” Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford, who is serving his second term, told the Journal. “We have a very eclectic group of people here in this community – from all political persuasions, from all life forces – that are having to work together.”

While not the first blaze this year, the McBride Fire was one of a few that kicked off an early fire season in New Mexico. But this fire grabbed attention due to the unusually high number of structures it destroyed.

Authorities have not released information about the cause of the fire, which was fueled by strong winds, a lack of rain and high temperatures. But a lawsuit has been filed alleging fire started after a falling tree downed a Public Service Company of New Mexico power line. The Journal filed a records request Thursday with the New Mexico State Forestry Division regarding the cause of the fire but has not received a response.

Since then, other fires have started or continued to burn throughout the state.

Up north, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire – at one point two separate fires that started in April before merging – has burned more than 340,000 acres and has destroyed thousands of structures, signaling a tough road ahead for many in its wake.

In southern New Mexico, near Truth or Consequences, the Black Fire is quickly approaching a similar size – burning more than 320,000 acres with containment more than 50%, according to the most recent updates.

For the people of Ruidoso, life goes on.

“We will bounce back and people will return – we know people will return,” said Robert Duncan, owner of Upper Canyon Lodging Co. “Unless there’s a major, major, major catastrophe that just wipes us off the planet, people will always return to Ruidoso. There will always be business in Ruidoso.”

‘Our turn in the dirt’

The McBride Fire started near the middle school in Ruidoso, just up the ridge from where Canyon Hideaway & Escape RV camp and TLC Trees are located. It created a path – leaving some areas untouched but others, including the Halls’ businesses, up in flames. Kristen Hall, her animals and people camping on-site were all evacuated.

Four RVs were saved, but seven burned to the ground – as well as a bathhouse that Robby Hall renovated not long before the fire came. All of Hall’s tree equipment was incinerated, including his pickup truck.

A few weeks after the fire was contained, Hall stood outside the RV park and looked up the hill at the scorched earth.

Between Hall’s two businesses, he said losses are possibly in the “hundreds of thousands.” He said his woodchipper was worth about $40,000 and a trailer was about $60,000. He said much of their burned equipment and structures were covered only by liability insurance.

Hall walked up the hill and pointed at a charred and melted backhoe – one he said helped build this campground more than 30 years ago.

“It was just our turn in the dirt,” he said. “I mean, if we lived in Florida, it’d be hurricanes. If we lived in Oklahoma, it’d be tornadoes. … The thing is, like, wildfires are part of living here and it’s going to (impact) one of us eventually.”

On the other side of town, just a fireplace stood where a cabin used to be at the Forest Home Cabins lodging business, owned and run by Nick Bagwell, his wife Ashlee Bagwell and her sister, Jackie Collins. The trio purchased the place in November 2019, just months before the pandemic would disrupt business and change the world. They adapted, with business coming back little by little until a sense of normalcy came about.

But the high winds that drove the fire in mid-April snapped trees on the property, destroying one cabin entirely and dismantling parts of a roof of another.

After the fire started, business quickly dried up.

“We canceled a bunch of reservations,” Nick Bagwell said. “We didn’t have any power. It was so chaotic.”

He said many customers rescheduled their vacations rather than canceling outright, which helped the business stay afloat.

“They wanted to make sure that we’re OK,” he said. “And they asked about our personal homes, too, which is why we love our guests.”

Resilient community

While the fire didn’t touch most commercial buildings in Ruidoso, it still had major effects on business owners in the tourism-driven town.

But like the mayor said, this community is resilient – ​​and supportive.

Parts Unknown, a Sudderth Drive outdoors gear retailer, stayed open during the fire, and a local woman opened a tab to pay for wool socks for firefighters. Store manager Travis Romero said about 100 pairs of socks were purchased, totaling about $3,000.

Duncan, who manages multiple properties through Upper Canyon Lodging Co., said his business offered evacuees lodging during the fire, though nobody took advantage since power at his business was out.

Kendra King, executive director of the Ruidoso Midtown Association, said she let a friend that lost her home stay with her.

The mayor said even in the midst what he calls the “tragedy of the economic bust this summer,” businesses have continued to hire people and order inventory.

Are they concerned? Of course. They would be remiss if they weren’t,” Crawford said. “They’re planning on having a bright future. … The story of Ruidoso is one of tenacity.”

Despite the turbulence the Bagwells have faced as business owners these past three years, they said they’ve tried to keep a positive mindset. Nick Bagwell said the door to the cabin that was destroyed was saved – and they plan to carve words into it “like a memorial” as a reminder of the fire that had affected their community.

The family also plans on carving the snapped tree into a coffee table and putting it into the new cabin that will eventually be rebuilt.

For the Bagwells and many other businesses, life slowly began to return to normal.

A snapshot of normalcy came on Memorial Day weekend, with travelers crowding Ruidoso streets.

It was a welcome sight, Bagwell said.

For those who lost something to the fire, rebuilding and moving on is all they can do, said Jackie Collins of Forest Home Cabins.

“I think the only thing we can do is just try to maintain what we have to,” she said. “…And just hope for the best.”

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