New Mexico firefighters join battle against California blazes

The burned wreckage of a car sits near a smoldering hot spot Wednesday in Paradise, Calif. At least 48 people have died in the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Eric Thayer/New York Times

Correction appended

Three members of a Santa Fe-based crew are among a team of New Mexico firefighters dispatched to help battle the devastating blazes in California.

Michael Martinez of Santa Fe is the leader of the Wildfire Support Team, a 30-person federally contracted crew frequently called upon to tackle wildfires throughout the American West.

This year alone, Martinez has sent his charges to nine states.

On Friday, he received a call from the U.S. Forest Service to deploy to the Camp Fire, a record-setting conflagration that has scorched 135,000 acres north of Sacramento, leveling the retirement community of Paradise, Calif., in the process.

Within two hours, the three crew members — Santa Fe residents Christian Carter and Benjamin Van Kleeck, and Taos resident Jonald Lowe — had gathered their gear and hit the road in Martinez’s 500-gallon Type III wildland fire engine.

Reached by phone Tuesday on the front lines, Carter said firefighters were “socked in by smoke” after once-racing winds of up to 70 mph had slowed.

“The fire behavior’s been pretty erratic,” he said. “We’ve been trying to take care of ourselves and do whatever we can to help the folks out here.”

That includes clearing brush and other combustible material around homes and trying, along with 5,100 other on-site personnel, he said, to help contain the lethal blaze.

With a death toll of at least 56, the Camp Fire is California’s deadliest and most destructive on record.

As of Wednesday, the inferno was 35 percent contained, according to Cal Fire, the state’s fire and forestry department.

Carter, Lowe and Kleeck are scheduled to remain in California through Nov. 24. For Carter, missing Thanksgiving at home is a trying but necessary prospect.

“It’s rough,” said Carter, who also owns Southwest Forestry Service, a Santa Fe-based fire-prevention company. “I’m used to missing anniversaries and birthday parties, the holidays. It’s not ideal, but we’ve got a job to do, and we need to do what we need to do to help these people down here.”

Martinez’s team in California is joined by a seven-truck, 25-person New Mexico task force, called up Saturday by New Mexico’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management following a request for help from California’s homeland security adviser.

That group arrived in Los Angeles and started tackling the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County on Sunday. They also are scheduled to work through Nov. 24.

The task force consists of crews from Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, Corrales, Los Alamos, Sandoval County and Angel Fire.

The Woolsey Fire is one of two blazes scorching vast swaths of land near Los Angeles. As of Wednesday morning, it had burned more than 97,000 acres and was 47 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

New Mexico is one of more than a dozen states that have sent resources to help battle California’s blazes.

Meanwhile, Greg Gallegos, wildland superintendent with the Santa Fe Fire Department, said he has an engine and a 10-person crew ready to go — and he expects to be called on soon.

“As the California scene progresses and they continue to get more fires, we’ll continue to get more orders,” he said. “We should be seeing something here shortly.”

This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Benjamin Van Kleeck, a member of the Wildfire Support Team crew, lives in Washington state. He is a Santa Fe resident.

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