By Owen Woods | email@example.com
THE Acequia Drive neighborhood doesn’t look like a fire whipped through it. The grass has regrown. The remnants of foundations jut from the earth like ancient artifacts – like the fire happened a hundred thousand years ago.
Except, it happened just last April. For those most affected by its destruction, they remember the fire as if it happened just yesterday.
Century-old cottonwoods lined the road, providing priceless shade. Where once there were trees there is now a clear view of the Crestones from Euclid Avenue.
Behind those trees, at 1303 Acequia Drive, was the home of Frank and Mary Jones. They lived in that home for 28 years. They lost everything that day. They lost their house, their cat, the materials to keep their business thriving, and a trailer full of art.
Their business, Creative Visions, has shown art all over the Valley. They specialize in antler art. But they also made things like lamps, tables, clocks, figurines, jewelry, and even dreamcatchers.
The last surviving pieces of their art sit in FaeMoon Wolf Designs on Adams Street in Monte Vista.
The fire was “very devastating. … Still is, for that matter,” Mary Jones told Alamosa Citizen.
On that day, Mary said, “We were getting ready for Cinco de Mayo.”
The fire started just after noon on April 20. It was a windy spring. Drought conditions and low humidity persisted for days. A Red Flag Warning was put into place for the entire San Luis Valley.
Absolute Shine (where the fire started)
“Trash or rubbish burning” is listed as the official cause of the fire. The trash or rubbish was set ablaze somewhere on the property of Absolute Shine Auto Body. Darrius Garcia, an employee of Absolute Shine, has been accused of starting the fire. The wind carried the flames and the smoke east.
Frank was on the porch working on his latest project. He told Mary, “I smell smoke” and not long after, the flames were on their way, pushed by those relentless winds, fueled by 17 acres of dried grass and trees. About the time the smoke started filling the neighborhood, she said, the police told them “Get out now!”
Emergency personnel went door to door and told everyone in the evacuation zone to “just go.” They told everyone there was no time to pack anything. Most people had just enough time to pack their families into the car. Belongings and animals were left behind.
Frank picked up their cat and his project and rushed to the truck. In the chaos, Mary said, the cat ran out of the truck and hid under the trailer where she said it perished.
Now, nearly nine months on, Frank and Mary are living their lives in a Del Norte apartment. After the fire, they lived in a hotel for a month. “We are starting to make our apartment a home.”
Mary said the community fund and insurance has given them some financial security, enough so they don’t have to worry so much.
Mary, now 80 and Frank, soon to be 67, aren’t looking to get back into the circuit of selling art. They would like to sell the land where their house once stood and just relax. “We’re learning Del Norte,” she said.
She relished in the town’s new excitement. She relished in the curious deer that peered through her window.
For those in the path of the fire who didn’t lose their homes, the memory hasn’t faded. The chaos of the day, the fear and confusion, and smell of smoke are still fresh for them.
An aerial view from the day of.
The residents of Rickey Place, the street at the east end of Acequia Drive, were told to evacuate, too. The fire was on a quick eastbound path toward them. A Rickey Place resident, Ty, told Alamosa Citizen, “I was four houses away from where it stopped and couldn’t get in there, at all. The cops had the roadblock set up, and made it out that the whole neighborhood was on fire. It was a lot of chaos.”
Nobody was home that day, Ty said. “I have four dogs that were stuck in the backyard that I couldn’t get to.” The dogs and Ty’s house were untouched by the fire. He said that because of the smoke “I couldn’t see my house there for a while.”
“It was like late afternoon before they let everyone back. But, passing by to get back to my house, my neighbors, I mean, they got the brunt of it. It was just an older couple and they just shifted through the wreckage. They lost their house, they lost a car. That whole property’s gone,” Ty said.
“The other house that was next to it got blackened on one side, smoke and fire damage. He was never able to fix it, because he works so much. He wasn’t able to get it settled. So now it’s just an empty house.”
There remain unanswered questions. The fire investigation and subsequent criminal investigation will shed light on the inner workings of the fire’s behavior and just what happened on April 20, besides the obvious.
No trial date has been set for Darrius Garcia at this time. He’s been charged with arson, a class three felony. Garcia appeared in court earlier in December for a status conference. He is set to appear in court on Feb. 10, 2023, for another status conference.
It’s again important to note the entire six-county San Luis Valley was under a Red Flag Warning at the time. Red Flag Warnings are different from Colorado’s Red Flag Law involving firearms. Red Flag Warnings are weather advisories given to areas that meet high-fire danger criteria, such as dry vegetation, low humidity, and low-to-the-ground, sustained winds.
The National Weather Service alerts the fire areas. Officials in those areas can then apply a blanket fire ban or heavily restrict any kind of burning activities.