Deep in the hills of Lincoln County near the Mescalero Apache Reservation, on a large game ranch run by the Rio Hondo Land & Cattle Company, lightning struck on May 3, igniting what would become the first fire of the season to exceed 1,000 acres. Local volunteers, ranchers, state forestry workers and others first showed up to try and contain the blaze — named the Park fire — and then called in Sacramento and Zuni Interagency hotshot crews. An air tanker dropped a slurry of fire retardant, while hand crews built firelines and lit backfires from a ranch road to help contain the fire.

By May 5, some 70 personnel were on the scene, led by the wildfire response team from the state Forestry Division. When I arrived a day later, crews were working throughout the area to make sure the containment lines held and to stanch any flare-ups.

Crew members walked through the fire zone, pulled off a glove to feel the ground, checked for hot spots and looked for smoldering remnants. If they found some, they dug them up, mixed them with cooler earth or doused them with water. When a pair of trees reignited, an engine crew from Socorro chopped down the burning limbs, broke them up and soaked them down.

No structures were threatened. But an estimated 1,200 acres burned, according to George Ducker, spokesman for the Forestry Division — all of them grasslands and piñon forest that support wildlife at the game ranch. 

On May 4, a day after the start of the Park fire, the Big Tank fire erupted in San Miguel County east of Las Vegas, burning an estimated 1,181 acres before crews contained it. Many smaller fires have also erupted and been brought under control in recent weeks, including three in Socorro County: the Antelope Flats fire (939 acres), Hilton fire (187 acres) and Yankee fire (338 acres). Then on May 8, the Las Cocas fire started in Mora County; as of publication time, it was 60 percent contained, having burned nearly 60 acres.

The following photos at the Park fire show a slice of what wildland firefighters do to protect homes, communities and people’s lives.

Gilliam uses a hose to tamp down fire on a burning tree so that his crew can get in, break it up and cool it off.

Kerwin Owaleon, part of a sawyer team with the Zuni Interagency Hotshot Crew, carries his chainsaw and a hand tool through the burn zone.

Shelby José, a member of the Zuni hotshots and a squad leader trainee, takes a break to look over her team.

Fire creeps along fallen branches.

Hampton Manuelito of the Zuni hotshots sprays water from a five-gallon backpack pump onto the smoldering remains while mopping up the last of the Park fire.

Justin Zuni uses a Pulaski tool to chop down a branch, breaking up the fire’s fuel so that it can be cooled off to prevent flare-ups.

Golden Moore, the assistant superintendent of the Zuni hotshots, calls his squads to see if there is an available sawyer to lend to Alec Davis, a strike team leader trainee and a firefighter with the Ruidoso Fire Department.

Adam Vasquez sprays down a smoldering tree in the fire zone.

Justin Zuni (right) chops down a tree limb while Sawyer Gilliam pulls the felled branches away. Adam Vasquez, in the back, sprays everything down.

A brush truck from the Carlsbad Fire Department waits on the fire perimeter as dust from a passing truck billows in the wind.