The Dog Head Fire has consumed almost 17,000 acres in New Mexico since Tuesday, and it remains entirely uncontained. People are leaving their homes and property, and more mandatory evacuations may be called this weekend.
KUNM spoke with Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who was stationed at the Bernalillo County’s emergency operations center Friday evening.
JOHNSON: The fire is well into Bernalillo County now, down around Chilili and the southern portion of the county. We have a mandatory evacuation in place for Bernalillo County residents. If you are south of 337 and 217, you’re in the mandatory evacuation area.
KUNM: And where are people evacuating to?
JOHNSON: Well, a lot of different places. A lot of it depends on whether or not they have friends and family in the area. In some cases, they will come up to our shelter at Los Vecinos Community Center right here in Tijeras, and we have facilities for them, showers, beds. They have places for their animals. We had some 70 or so animals this morning that we were taking care of at that shelter.
KUNM: Now I know some FEMA funds have been freed up for evacuations. Are you offering people hotel vouchers or anything like that?
JOHNSON: At this point, I know that there are some options for longer-term stays. And I know some of the hotels in town—and in fact Isleta—is offering some of those services to residents in the East Mountain areas that have been displaced.
KUNM: So have you seen much resistance with regards to evacuations?
JOHNSON: We have some of them. Some families will go, “All right. I’m going to stay here, but I’m sending my wife and my kids and my animals on out.” That’s the reason why I think we have more animals at the shelter than actual families. But, you know, some folks just have different accommodations from place to place.
But in any case, no, it’s not, you know, real violent type of reaction to us calling mandatory evacuation. But there’s folks that just don’t want to leave. The first night out in Chilili, I was talking to a few folks, and they were saying “Well, we’re going to stay.” Well the sun went down, and things got a little hairy, and they just thought, “No we’re going to leave.” And I later saw them at one of our shelters.
So, that type of thing happens. We can’t force people to leave. But the real crux of the matter is if they’re under mandatory evacuation and they don’t leave, and then they need some form of emergency service, we may not be able to actually reach them. And we’re under no obligation to go. We’ll try, but we’re not going to risk men and equipment to go into that area that is already evacuated if it’s too dangerous for them to make entry.
KUNM: So I know that it’s challenging to communicate with folks all over that area because, you know, maybe there’s not Internet or there’s not the same cell phone connectivity that we’re used to in the city. So what are some of the methods that you’re really employing to kind of keep people updated?
JOHNSON: The obvious one is to knock on doors. That’s the most tactile approach to getting to folks and knowing what their status is. It’s also to check on them from a welfare standpoint. Have they been injured and are unable to evacuate. We do push out information through reverse 911. We have hit them multiple times with telephone calls, telling them that you are in an area that has been called for mandatory evacuation. But, really, it’s one-on-one.
KUNM: And what do you think is the most important thing that you would like people in the whole affected area to take away this evening heading into the weekend?
JOHNSON: Well, going into the weekend, I want the people in the East Mountains to be prepared. The most important thing they can do right now is get their go-bags ready. That includes their water, some food, their medicine if they have it and are taking medicine. So that if we do call an evacuation for their area, that they’re ready to get in their vehicles and leave.
And this is for anybody really South of I-40. Be prepared to leave your property. Don’t wait until we call an evacuation. Don’t wait until you see the fire 100 yards from your property. That’s when it’s too late to get ready. It’s never too early to be prepared to leave.
KUNM: We don’t have any sense, right, of how long people will be evacuated for?
JOHNSON: That is absolutely correct. As long as the danger persists, we’ll be holding people away from their property. And once you leave under a mandatory evacuation, we don’t let you go back in.
The library in Tijeras is taking donations of packaged food and water, which will either be given to the first responders and firefighters, or distributed through the Red Cross to the shelters for evacuees.