August 1, 2011 at 3:37 PM

Fire! BackCountry Horsemen Keep Their Wits— It Saves Their Lives

"...the fire was between them and the trailers..."

By Susie Morgan

Hoof Prints in Santa Fe

Susie Morgan is a lifetime lover of horses, the outdoors and lives for adventures. She lives in Las Campanas, and is reconnecting with horses after working 27 years in New York City.

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(The above pictures were taken July 15, in the direction of Cochiti. The Caja Del Rio forest access was closed due to fire concerns.)

It started on Sunday. By Thursday, officials were already calling the Las Conchas Fire the worst fire in New Mexico’s history.  As of July 1st, Santa Fe had two fires burning:  the Pacheco fire in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Las Conchas Fire in the Jemez Mountains.

By July, the Forestry Division had battled 1,021 fires this year.  756,249 acres had burned across New Mexico, engulfing 100 structures and 40 homes. In June, the Track Fire in northeastern New Mexico burned through the watershed that supplies water to the town of Raton, and the Las Conchas fire burned 6,000 acres of watershed that supplies water to the Santa Clara Pueblo.  Now that monsoon season is here, the mud slides are beginning.

One particularly harrowing event involved the Santa Fe Chapter of BackCountry Horsemen of New Mexico clearing trails in the Sangre de Cristos when the Pacheco fire broke out.  Nick Martinez said, “We had spent most of the day clearing Borrego Trail 150, a middle section  that always seems to be the last section attended to to keep it passable for stock use.”  There is no trail crew in the Forest Service due to budgetary constraints, so back country trail maintenance is one of the volunteer projects of the BackCountry Horsemen.  Nick said, “We were working the trail facing north, so we could not see any indication of fire.”

About 4:30 p.m., two of the crew quit to get a head start down the mountain. Eldon Reyer and Deb were riding horses 35 years old and the other horse was not in top condition.  A little more than an hour later, the rest of the crew mounted up to head down. By now, they could smell smoke. So first, they went to a high spot to get a grip on the fire and could see the flames below. They realized the fire was close and they had to move quickly to get back to the trailers. But the fire was between them and the trailers.

Luckily, in Nicks group was BackCountry Horseman Julie Bain, who also works for the Forest Service.  Julie jumped on her satellite phone for advice getting out. The Forest Service recommended a different direction than the riders would have thought to take and talked them down in a safe direction. By this time, they could see flames at the top of the ridge.

They followed Nambe River down to Nambe Lake to connect with a Forest Service representative.  Nick said, “Just about dark, we arrived at Nambe Lake and the Forest Service escorted us to our trailers. When we reached the trailers, Eldon’s trailer was still there.”  Nick called Eldon’s wife to let her know the situation.

Eldon and Deb had been only ¼ mile from top of ridge, which would have given them a straight shot to the trailers when the fire came up on two sides of them. They backtracked down to the Nambe River and could see prints where Nicks’ group of horses had crossed the river.  Eldon told Nick, “Your horse always leaves a deeper print so I recognized it, but just to be sure, I counted the number of horse tracks, so I knew it was our group.”

Eldon and Deb followed the tracks of the second group down. But by 9 p.m., Eldon’s horse just quit.  So they camped the night by the side of the river.  By morning, the horse had recovered and they continued down.

At 7 a.m., Eldon’s wife called Nick to say Eldon had called.  Both Eldon and Deb were safe having reached Nambe Lake.  She asked Nick if he would go to Nambe Lake to assist them getting back to their trailer.  All made it home safely.

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The BackCountry Horsemen is a unique organization that works with the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and other agencies to preserve and maintain the back country so that everyone has the freedom to enjoy it. As a service organization, they offer their expertise to assist public agencies to manage continual recreational livestock use on public lands. They offer their time and equipment to government agencies for such tasks as packing out trash, clearing trails, building trailhead facilities and other projects which will benefit both horsemen and non-horsemen. One of the primary goals is to educate horsemen, and other trail users in the low impact use of the back country environment.

New Mexico is lucky to have EIGHT chapters of BackCountry Horsemen, not only for horses, but for everyone that enjoys our natural resources.  If you would like to join them, donate, or start a BackCountry group in your area, contact the BackCountry Horsemen.  http://www.bchnm.org/

Story Courtesy of Today’s Horse Trader Magazine.  Photos by Sally Greenwood, BCH.

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