Monday, July 1, 2013

More Drama on the Chama {with real drama this time}

Thunderstorms, lightning and wildfires. And of course, the usual hot springs, gourmet meals and sleeping under the stars.

All was going well on our weekend trip with a lovely rain shower on Friday evening that cleared in time to sit in the hot springs before dark. Andrew and I even sneaked in another soak Saturday morning before breakfast.

As we were rafting down the Chama River on Saturday, about mid-day, our friend Michael pointed out white smoke billowing over the canyon rim on river right. Immediately, we knew it was another wildfire. There are no structures or power lines in the area so we speculated that it must have been started by the lightning storm on Friday evening. We kept our eye on the smoke as we continued down the river.

As we came around a bend, we realized that the fire wasn't on the other side of the ridge like we thought. It was in the canyon between us and the trees on the top of the ridge. We could see the smoke billowing and trees flaming only a couple of hundred yards away. As you can imagine, this caused a bit of a panic amongst the group wondering if the fire would spread through the canyon. As the BLM ranger put it, this could be the last time we ever see the Chama looking like this. The smoke turned from white to black pretty quickly. The fire was clearly getting worse by the minute. Helicopters were circling around presumably assessing the situation. The canyon filled with smoke that made the air hazy and our eyes and throats burn.

We went a ways further down river and saw the river ranger from BLM on river left with a good vantage point. The ranger told me that they wouldn't be fighting the fire since it didn't threaten any structures. I'm not sure why, but they did start fighting it. Helicopters with buckets began flying into the smoke to drop water, and another helicopter dropped a crew off on top of the mesa.

We stayed for about an hour hoping that the ranger would hear back on his satellite phone whether or not we would have to evacuate. We eventually couldn't stand the smoke any longer and continued down river. Luckily, within the half hour of putting back on the river, it started to downpour. It rained for at least an hour, and we all hoped that the rain would help contain the fire.

We pulled off at a campsite, although we had been warned by the ranger not to unload or set anything up until later in the day in case we had to evacuate. After the rain stopped, we set up our camp. We couldn't see smoke up the canyon, although it is hard to see because of the steep walls, so we hoped that the fire was contained. The next morning was the same story - no sight or smell of smoke.

On the last day of the Chama trip you pass by the Christ in the Desert Monastery and just below that at Chavez Canyon is a put-in for day runs. The mood and atmosphere of the trip always changes at that point because all of a sudden there are lots of people on the river. As we passed by Chavez Canyon and the folks on the river suddenly included more people, it felt like maybe Saturday afternoon had never happened. There was no indication that anyone was concerned about the fire or even knew about it. It was a bizarre feeling.

I checked the New Mexico fire info this morning, but I didn't see anything about the fire in the canyon. I'm hoping that this means it was indeed contained fairly quickly.

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