Mattie Allen with Porky, a mother of seven who survived the Camp Canyon–Hermit’s Peak fire
Mattie Allen with Porky, a mother of seven who survived the Camp Canyon–Hermit’s Peak fire
Mattie Allen with Porky, a mother of seven who survived the Camp Canyon–Hermit’s Peak fire (Photo: Mattie Allen)

Meet Porky, Cinder, and Other Furry Survivors of the 2022 New Mexico Superfires

Thanks to a lot of hard work, skill, luck, and love, these amazing animals emerged safely from the flames and disruption

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This spring, New Mexico was hit hard by wildfires, and two of them burned through vast swaths of public and private land to the west and east of Santa Fe, where I live. The Cerro Pelado Fire, which at press time had scorched more than 45,000 acres of backcountry south and west of Los Alamos, started on April 22 and is now mostly contained; its origins remain unknown. The fire known as Calf Canyon–Hermit’s Peak, which has made news all over the world, began as two separate controlled burns—both run by the U.S. Forest Service—that broke out and turned into historic disasters. By early June, those fires had covered nearly 320,000 acres, in a part of the state that contains a mix of population centers, most of them traditionally Hispanic, and wilderness areas. The latter fire’s southernmost boundary is just west of the city of Las Vegas, near a mountain called Hermit’s Peak, and extends north in a wide path that’s home to thousands of people living in or near villages like Mora, Rociada, Upper Rociada, Gascon, and Cleveland. This fire is still not tamed, and as of June 8, it had destroyed 880 residences and other structures. (You can get a sense of the location and scale of these fires here.)

Big fires can be hard to make sense of, even from a short distance away, but I learned a lot by following two Facebook pages that I heard about from my friend Dave Cox, a photographer and journalist who lives in Glorieta, New Mexico, where he did volunteer work and took pictures of the enormous smoke plumes generated by the Calf Canyon–Hermit’s Peak inferno. Cox told me about two especially useful sites: the Calf Canyon–Hermit’s Peak Fire Inclusive Support Group and Calf Canyon Hermit’s Peak Fire Legal Resources.

While monitoring them, I read a lot of bad news, obviously: stories of those who lost everything to flames, of the difficulties survivors were facing when dealing with agencies like FEMA, and of widespread rage against the federal government that’s going to play out for years—often in courtrooms—as people seek financial compensation for what they lost.

But there was uplifting information on those pages, too, and by following them, I got a better sense of the immeasurable contributions made by firefighters, volunteers, and concerned citizens from all over the country. Before long, I started coming across amazing tales from a particular part of the fires’ overall narrative: pet and wildlife rescue. With help from Facebook, pet owners, and animal-welfare volunteers, I learned about some incredible creatures who came close to the brink.

Spoiler alert! These stories all have happy endings.

Emerald at home before the Calf Canyon-Hermit’s Peak fire
Emerald at home before the Calf Canyon-Hermit’s Peak fire (Tina Heffner)
Emerald after he came back
Emerald after he came back (Tina Heffner)

Emerald’s Big Adventure

This little guy is an adopted stray male whose owner, Tina Heffner, named him Emerald because of his beautiful green eyes. As you can see, they’re black in the photo on the right, which was taken soon after he emerged from an unusual experience: being lost and alone for a month in the middle of the biggest fire in New Mexico history.

Heffner told me she wasn’t sure if Emerald’s soot-stained eyes would ever return to their former shade of green—fortunately, they have—and, like me, she wonders how he survived for so long out there. Somehow he must have scavenged food and water while getting basted and fogged day after day with nasty smoke. Whatever happened, Heffner regards his return as a gift. “He saw the darkness,” she says. “I honestly thought I’d never see this cat again.”

Heffner lives on 13 acres in the small community of Encinal, New Mexico, in the heart of an area hit hard by the Calf Canyon–Hermit’s Peak Fire. Her family’s property contains two houses and an RV, along with fruit trees, evergreens, meadow grass, and plots for raising vegetables. The extended clan includes Heffner’s parents, her brother, Emerald, and another adopted stray, a female named Smokey. Heffner’s dad, who is 84, is on oxygen due to a respiratory condition. Her mom, who is 70, had emergency gallbladder surgery a week before the family was forced to evacuate as the fire closed in. While they were packing to go on April 22, the cats were nowhere to be seen.

“Between getting my stuff and my parents’ stuff, I could not find them,” Heffner says. “I cried because we had to leave.”

Over the next few weeks, Heffner and her family relocated three times, camping for a while at a state park southeast of the fire zone, staying for a week at an Airbnb in Las Vegas (which was paid for by a generous family friend), and parking their RV at a relative’s home in Springer, New Mexico. For a few days after the family first left, neighbors were able to go to Heffner’s house and leave out water and cat food, but eventually all of Encinal’s residents were told to leave.

When Heffner was finally able to return home on May 18, she was extremely relieved to find that the houses hadn’t burned, though it was close—flames marched right past the back door of the home she shares with her mom. There was extensive damage to the land, with many trees reduced to black sticks. 

As for the cats: Smokey showed up immediately, but there was no sign of Emerald. Then, about four days later, the little wanderer came home, still wearing his spiffy pet collar but covered with what Heffner calls “filmy oily stuff” flecked with ash. She gave him a bath, and before long he seemed to feel fine—thinner, to be sure, but breathing well, eating, and drinking water. Heffner says he’s more comfortable around people than he used to be; life in the hot zone apparently gave him a new appreciation.

Summer at Española Humane
Summer at Española Humane (Mattie Allen)
Summer with her rescuer, Summer Piper
Summer with her rescuer, Summer Piper (Mattie Allen)

One Kitten, Eight Dogs

This feisty orange female kitten, believed to be a feral, six-week-old stray who was separated from her mother, was found nearly lifeless by firefighters on May 20 in the middle of a road near the village of Cleveland. Acting fast, they handed her over to Summer Piper, a member of the San Diego Humane Society Emergency Response Team. Piper was in New Mexico to aid animals, pet owners, and firefighters, a role that involved everything from distributing food to taking part in rescues. That day, while out on her rounds, she stopped to use a restroom at the Chet Fire Department in Holman, New Mexico.

“They asked me if I was there for the cat,” says Piper, who’s now back in San Diego. “I said, ‘No, but do you have a cat?’” They did. She was in a small box, and she didn’t look like she would survive. Her eyes and nose were crusted shut with blood and goo, and she seemed so listless that firefighters initially thought she might have suffered some kind of blunt-force trauma.

Acting fast, Piper took the kitten to a vet in Las Vegas; after two rounds of antibiotics to treat a severe upper respiratory infection compounded by smoke, she was transferred to a temporary animal shelter and later to the headquarters of Española Humane, which is based about a half-hour north of Santa Fe. Mattie Allen, director of communications for the organization, says the rescued kitty—who was named Summer in honor of you know who—is fully rehabilitated at this point and has been adopted. Piper was glad to hear this news when I mentioned it to her, adding, “I wanted to bring her home myself.”

During the fire’s disruptions, Española Humane provided care for 23 cats and kittens that were shipped over from a shelter in Las Vegas, operated by a group called the Animal Welfare Coalition of Northeastern New Mexico, when it looked as if that city might burn. (Fortunately, the fire didn’t travel that far east.) It also took in and provided extensive medical care to a lost 100-pound mastiff mix, Porky, and her seven boisterous pups, who were picked up by a firefighting crew working near Mora.

“This herd of puppies and their mama ran from the fire up to firefighters like they were saying ‘Help us! Help us!’” Allen says. “The firefighters fed and watered them, and the pups immediately passed out cold for a nap next to the smoldering, smoking ash, before a team of Hotshots evacuated them from the inferno.”

The dogs were turned over to the county sheriff’s office, which gave them to the Humane Society of the United States, which sent them to Española Humane. There, vets spayed Porky and spayed, neutered, dewormed, and microchipped the magnificent seven.

Somehow, the Humane Society found the owner, who is now reunited with Porky. The seven puppies were put up for adoption; all now have new homes.

Porky’s seven pups
Porky’s seven pups (Aaron Abeyta)
Española Humane volunteer Julie Martinez with one of Porky’s rescued pups
Española Humane volunteer Julie Martinez with one of Porky’s rescued pups (Mattie Allen)

Miss Mora and the Four Deities of Flame

On May 1, a fire crew working near Mora saw a large dog with a dark coat come running out of an actively burning area. After picking the animal up and doing a quick inspection—it looked like a Lab–pit bull mix, there were no burns or signs of respiratory damage, it was a female, and she was friendly—they put her in the back of their vehicle and tried to figure out what to do next. According to James Maher, a Red Cross volunteer from Connecticut who was deployed to New Mexico for a month during the fire, the crew took her to the Old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, at the time a shelter taking in both people and animals. The next day, the dog was sent west to the Glorieta Adventure Camps, a private, Christian-themed outdoor retreat near Santa Fe that served as a temporary shelter.

Every dog at Glorieta had to be attached to an owner, and a Red Cross volunteer named Queila Costello agreed to take temporary custody of the dog, who was given the name Mora. During daily walks around the property, Costello struck up a friendship with Shannon Baruth, an evacuated resident of Las Vegas who was walking a seizure-alert service animal she owns called Annie. Soon, Costello started thinking about adoption, something she discussed on the phone with her husband, who is currently working overseas.

Costello and Baruth figured Mora probably had an owner, so they posted information and photos online and waited. Two weeks went by with no bites, so Costello went through with the adoption. Two weeks after that, Baruth sent Maher a photo of a dog in a fire truck she’d seen on Facebook and asked: Is this Mora? It was, and the picture had been posted by Mora’s rescuer, a firefighter from central California named Jon Marquez. He was looking for Mora because he hoped to adopt her, too. Marquez was disappointed that Mora already had a taker but also glad to hear she’d wound up in a good home.

A different dog story with a happy ending comes courtesy of the Las Vegas–based Animal Welfare Coalition, the group that was forced to evacuate all its cats to Española, along with 150 dogs that were distributed to a variety of partner organizations. Tina Holguín, shelter director at the AWC, told me the story of four pit bulls who were rescued by … somebody—an unidentified Samaritan—who gave them to animal-control officials in Las Vegas’s county, San Miguel. The rescue happened on May 5, and Holguín says the dogs were “covered in soot, their eyelashes were singed, and they definitely had breathing issues.” They’re in good shape now and have been named after Greek, Roman, and Hawaiian deities associated with hearths and fire: Vesta, Hestia, Pele, and Phoenix. A lengthy attempt to find the dogs’ owner was unsuccessful, and they are now eligible for adoption.

Mora with Queila Costello
Mora with Queila Costello (James Maher)
Phoenix, one of the four pit bulls cared for by the Animal Welfare Coalition
Phoenix, one of the four pit bulls cared for by the Animal Welfare Coalition (Tina Holguín)

Where’s Elwood?

On Wednesday, May 18, Jim Sorenson, a fly-fisherman from Corrales, New Mexico, drove north to the Jemez Mountains to enjoy one last day on the water before the Santa Fe National Forest closed on the 19th. The closure was directly linked to the dry conditions that helped fuel the Cerro Pelado blaze.

Along for the ride was a very good dog, Elwood, a six-year-old neutered male who Sorenson describes as “a red heeler or an Australian cattle-dog mix.” Their destination: the Rio Guadalupe, a pretty mountain stream that flows through national forest land just north of an unincorporated community called Canon. Sorenson and Elwood were about five miles away from the wildfire’s western front.

After walking in from the truck, the guys followed their usual routine, which involved Man fishing while Dog romped on the bank. (You’re not supposed to let a dog run unleashed in a national forest, but people do it all the time. Sorenson feels chagrined and doesn’t plan to do it again.) At some point, in a stretch where the river was lined by dense brush, Sorenson noticed that Elwood was no longer showing up to eagerly peep at him through the plants, so he got out of the water and searched high and low for five hours. No luck. When darkness came, he drove back to Corrales, despondent and unsure about what to do next.

On Thursday, Sorenson contacted Jemez Valley Animal Amigos, a rescue group in the town of Jemez Springs. It got the word out; its staff also suggested that he go back and leave articles of clothing he’d worn, a proven method for reeling in a missing pooch. Sorenson drove up from Corrales with a blanket, a T-shirt, and some flyers, but, alas, the forest road was now closed, so he couldn’t lay them out on the ground. At a gate on the boundary, he ran into a crew parked in a Forest Service fire truck and spoke with firefighter Glenn Engelhaupt Jr., who had come in from out of state.

Engelhaupt couldn’t let Sorenson go in, but he was happy to place the clothing for him. Forest Service employee Juanita Revak had already emailed info about Elwood to personnel who would be in the area. Sorenson went home feeling worried but also thankful that he at least had a chance.

The next morning brought great news. Three local firefighters were patrolling and spotted Elwood sitting on the blanket, looking like a stressed-out version of the RCA Victor dog hearing his master’s voice. They scooped him up, phoned Sorenson, and arranged a handoff in a village called San Ysidro. Elwood was limping from a small cut on one paw, but he was otherwise fine. Needless to say, Sorenson is glad to have him back, and he’s left with warm memories of how others stepped up to help them both.

“Animal Amigos have an amazing network,” he says. “Glenn was very apologetic that he couldn’t let me into the forest. When I asked for help, he said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll do this.’ There’s a fire going on, and these are firemen. I didn’t think they’d be able to take the time to do this for me.”

Sorenson and Elwood by the Rio Grande, near their home in Corrales, New Mexico
Sorenson and Elwood by the Rio Grande, near their home in Corrales, New Mexico (Tego Venturi)

An Elk Named Cinder

Of all the animals who survived the great fire, a male elk calf named Cinder emerged as the biggest media sensation—his story has been told by the Associated Press and NPR. I assume Hollywood is also on the case, and I hope Cinder has a tough agent who will push Disney and Pixar into a bidding war.

Cinder was found on May 21 by Nate Sink, a city firefighter from Missoula, Montana, who was sent to a burned-over area near the village of Gascon, looking for lingering hotspots to put out. “I was up on a ridge and was working on a half-burned tree,” Sink recalls. “I took a break, looked around. Everything was black and white, trees black and ash everywhere. From about 50 yards away, I saw an elk calf sitting in ash that was about four inches deep.”

Sink watched from a distance for about an hour, in case the calf’s mother returned. It didn’t, so he decided that the only way to save its life was to pick it up and take it in. Earlier, firefighters had met a pair of local ranchers, Lisa and Carl Bartley, so they took Cinder to their place to get advice. The Bartleys recommended their family vet, who prescribed feeding Cinder with a mix of evaporated milk, electrolytes, and water.

Cinder was soon transferred to the care of Kathleen Ramsay, a vet based near Española who has extensive experience rehabilitating animals that for one reason or another have lost their place in the wild. Ramsay told me that Cinder had a very close call—for starters, she thinks his mother probably gave birth to him early.

“We know that if a female elk is in labor and a fire upsets her, she just drops the calf and runs,” Ramsay says. Cinder still had his umbilical cord. She estimates that he was somewhere between two hours and four days old.

Because he was born and quickly separated, Cinder did not have a chance to take in colostrum and mother’s milk; these are important, because they contain antibodies called immunoglobulins, which transfer immunity to the newborn. Ramsay spent three days syringing colostrum into Cinder’s mouth.

The hooved orphan is doing well, grazing on a four-acre field under the gaze of Ramsay and a 22-year-old elk cow who is experienced at watching over young elk like Cinder. “Her job is to be out there with the elk, teaching them how to be elk,” Ramsay says. (Lessons imparted include grazing and predator avoidance.)

Sometime later this year, Cinder will be ear-tagged and released on private ranchland, where he will have a strong chance of gaining acceptance into a herd and living a long and normal life as an antlered, bugling adult.

Cinder in the ashes
Cinder in the ashes (Nate Sink)
Cinder with Nate Sink
Cinder with Nate Sink (Courtesy Nate Sink)

I sent donations to two of the groups that helped make a difference for people and animals during the New Mexico fires, and they were generously matched by Outside magazine, which is based in Santa Fe. If you feel inclined to give, the links above will lead you to the home pages of various worthy organizations. I’ll add one more: NMDog, a nonprofit based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose primary focus is persuading dog owners not to use chains to confine their pets.