LAS VEGAS, N.M. — When the Walmart closes early in the day, you know trouble is coming.
Trouble — in the form of a fire- and brimstone-colored cloud of smoke drifting over the hill.
The kind that speaks to a wildfire on the move — one on the front door not of a remote mountain village but a city of 13,000 residents.
As the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire continued its inexorable march through Northern New Mexico, Las Vegas residents began packing up and moving out — reacting to evacuation orders in some parts of the town that, once they became public, encouraged others to leave.
You could see signs of a great migration as far away as the Speedy gas station in Romeroville, six miles west of town.
The shelves of the grocery mart attached to the gas station were nearly devoid of products. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes, including some trucks and trailers — many filled with stuff you take with you when you are on the run — were lined up to fill up the tank.
“People are getting what they can and getting out,” said one of two employees who patiently waited on ever-growing lines of customers trying to gas up or grab snacks for the road.
By 4 p.m., the gas station was closed, too.
County officials told residents of West Las Vegas and neighborhoods closest to the fire to get ready to evacuate by midafternoon Monday, following “go” orders from some outlying communities west of the city.
In some ways, it was a move faintly reminiscent of the quick departure forced upon Los Alamos and White Rock, which were quickly emptied as the disastrous Cerro Grande Fire bore down in 2000.
Most businesses — including Walmart and the Dollar General store — as well as City Hall, were closed Monday. County officials let many of their employees go home early so they could pack. The state Behavioral Health Institute and the San Miguel County Jail were vacated. Even the National Guard armory was put on evacuation notice as smoke plumes rose over and around nearby hills.
“The fire wants to go this way when the wind is behind it,” said Mike De Fries, spokesman for the fire’s incident management team, from outside his command center perch on the campus of the Luna Community College.
The fire, estimated at 138,000 acres Monday evening, was just 20 percent contained.
Winds coming from the west and northwest helped push the fire toward Las Vegas on Sunday. A slight drop in wind activity Monday may have stalled that movement a bit, though it was too early to tell for sure by late Monday afternoon.
More than 1,000 firefighters were combating the blaze from the Mora area to Las Vegas, doing their best to protect lives and structures, De Fries said.
Meanwhile, county officials were working on plans to help evacuate people and the animals in local shelters, said Joy Ansley, San Miguel County’s manager. As county officials continued to confer with U.S. Forest Service authorities and the New Mexico State Police on an evacuation plan for the city, she said they have to prepare to change direction and plans as quickly as the fire changes its own course.
“We’re at the weather’s mercy,” she said.
Luna Community College and New Mexico Highlands University also were closed, though the Highlands student center and cafeteria remained open for students who had not yet evacuated. They were not required to leave as of Monday afternoon.
Glancing about at the fire’s ash falling on the nearly deserted streets near the Highlands campus, one student remarked: “It looks like an apocalypse.”
Many houses in the residential areas around the college seemed empty. In some driveways, parked trucks and trailers were backed in — some full of bed frames and mattresses, suggesting the first wave of packing had taken place.
Others, perhaps less fortunate, had to rely on their cars to serve as transport vehicle and hotel bed.
Watching a Chinook helicopter suck water into containers via a hose over Storrie Lake, Jocelyn Lovato, her son Dayvian Lovato and her mother, Pearl Gonzales, wondered what was next. Jocelyn’s car was jammed with bins of clothing, blankets, water, prescription medicine, papers and her son’s backpack.
For Lovato, the fire cost her a job, at least temporarily, as the fast food restaurant she works at closed for the day.
“We have nowhere to go,” she said as they sat parked at nearby Storrie Lake, watching the sideshow of hope provided by the helicopters.
Others were better prepared, but that did not make the abandonment of home and memories any easier to bear. Cathy Garcia carefully wrapped up an array of porcelain figures — many of a religious nature — as family members loaded her other belongings into a flatbed trailer connected to a truck.
“I’d rather take off now than hear a siren ringing,” she said. “I’m not going to wait.”
She’s heading to the Albuquerque area to stay with family members and friends. But some people have nowhere to go, she said, and she feels sad for them.
“Some lived here 40, 50, 60 years, and now to lose their homes,” she said. “This was their home; this was their life.”
She said she’s happy to see people coming together to help one another and pray.
“What else can you do but sit there and pray?” she asked.
A few doors down from Garcia, Ronnie Marquez looked over an open-air trailer with fencing on top that contained about 100 chickens, ducks and other fowl. They are pets, not dinner, he said, and they are going with Marquez if and when he leaves. Inside, his wife, Shantel, continued to pack up boxes of clothes and food for their family of six. The four children range in age from five to 13.
Marquez, whose job includes checking on water tank levels and fuel access for Penderies Village, about 30 miles northwest of Las Vegas, said he did not think the fire would come into Las Vegas proper. While he was readying to leave just in case, he said it’s important to not panic so you don’t panic others.
Recalling a perilous drive he and his wife took Sunday night near Sapello, also north of Las Vegas, in which they got caught between two walls of flames, Marquez said it was like “driving to hell.”
As one of his daughters played with a young kitten named Smoky — she was born during the fire — Marquez said if he and his family must leave, they will head to Albuquerque where they have friends.
“We have a plan; we have a destination,” he said. Looking around at the couches, chairs, dining room table and television sets in the house, he said it’s important to prioritize what you want to take.
“I don’t have to take the furniture,” he said. “That can all be replaced. You can’t replace the personal stuff, your family.”
Not everyone could protect their household goods in time. Eddie Gonzales, who lives in West Las Vegas, got the order to evacuate early Monday morning when his mother called to tell him, “The fire is by our yard.”
He and other family members rushed to the site to evacuate her and his father, who is disabled. As he stood surveying a pickup of items he managed to load before the fire came in, Gonzales shook his head in sadness — wondering if any of the family’s homes were still standing.
“This is a nightmare,” he said. “I never believed this would happen. … The wind goes north then south so quick, like a circle around the community.”
In the truck bed was a grill — “so we can cook,” Gonzales said — and items he hopes to sell for cash to help pay for a trip to, well, wherever.
“I don’t know where to go,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of money right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Others planned to stay to the end, to not give ground, like Dickey Martinez. Family members rented a U-Haul truck to transport furniture and other personal items from his home shortly after county officials told residents of his neighborhood to get ready to go.
He has no intention to leave the home, he said, even if all the furniture is gone. “I’m staying,” he said. “I’ve got a back hoe. I’m going to fight it. I’m not leaving until it’s the last straw.”
His wife, Charlotte, prepared a list of things to prioritize for the evacuation. Items that contained a memory — an antique rocking chair, a wooden turtle sculpture, religious statutes — got the first tickets to ride in the U-Haul.
She, too, had to consider what to leave behind if worse comes to worst. Some oil paintings hanging on the walls, which she made, can stay, she said.
“Those are in my mind; I can redo them,” she said.
Looking at nearby smoke plumes that obscured the sun and the fire itself, she said, “If it comes over that mountain, there’s no stopping it.”
Asked where she planned to go while her husband stayed behind to fight the fire, she smiled.
“I’m staying with him,” she said.