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Cellular challenges remain in Capitan for people waiting to go home after NM fires

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Cellular challenges remain in Capitan for people waiting to go home after NM fires

Jun 21, 2024 | 2:13 pm ET
By Danielle Prokop
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Cellular challenges remain in Capitan for people waiting to go home after NM fires
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Evacuees at Capitan receive two free meals a day from the New Mexico Southern Baptist Convention's Disaster Relief team, staffed with volunteers across the state. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM).

CAPITAN – People who fled the South Fork and Salt fires are finding refuge in Smokey Bear’s hometown.

Around 150 people are sheltering at the Capitan High School Thursday, fewer than the previous days as evacuees have moved, finding additional places to stay, often with family.

Some struggles remain as the area has almost no cellular service, and limited internet.

As cell phone service comes and goes, people are having trouble sending and receiving texts, with some of them coming into their phones days after they were sent.

Cellular towers on wheels set up in the parking lot at the high school are in the process of increasing coverage.A wifi van and multiple charging stations are available, but their range is very limited. This was set up by service providers such as T-Mobile.

To reunite family and friends, it sometimes takes old-school technology – like a message board.“We cannot release who is or isn’t exactly in the shelters, by our policy, but we’ve got a message board up here,” said Stuart Dietz, the American Red Cross disaster program specialist in eastern New Mexico.

The spotty service adds to the logistics challenges for some of the aid groups assisting evacuees from destructive South Fork and Salt Fires.

“You can’t buy all of the food here, in Capitan,” said Dorothy Rolfs, who manages breakfast and dinner for evacuees as part of the New Mexico Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief program.

Cellular challenges remain in Capitan for people waiting to go home after NM fires
Dorthy Rolfs, 80, leads the volunteers in the disaster relief program. ‘It’s fluid, but we’ll be here as long as people need us,’

Rolfs received the call to assist people on Monday night, driving from Albuquerque in a caravan hauling in the food. The operation is out of a trailer, with a six-burner stove and full convection oven, staffed by volunteers, which coordinates with the Red Cross relief efforts at the shelter.

“It’s been a moving target, it’s hard to know what to expect,” she said. “But we’re still here for people.”

Many of the volunteers traveled from Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Edgewood and Deming, but several are evacuees.

Nancy Mason, and her husband Mike, live in Ruidoso, retiring there after being “weekenders for decades,” their refuge from the Midland, Texas heat.

In the three years they’ve lived there, they’ve evacuated twice, because of fires. But the relief efforts in 2022 at their Baptist church fueled Mason’s vocation to help people in disaster areas.

“We got evacuated and the disaster relief set up their command center in our church, and so we started volunteering there, and never really stopped,” she said.

Cellular challenges remain in Capitan for people waiting to go home after NM fires
Nancy Mason is both a volunteer and a Ruidoso evacuee, assisting at the shelter in Capitan. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)

She coordinated assessments, which help determine damage of houses lost to fire and the construction work to remove the rubble. She managed the database of homes damaged in the McBride Fire, and went to the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire in its early days, to help people sift through the ashes.

Mason just finished her chaplain’s training, which offers additional emotional support for evacuees.

She said even if they lost their home, they would stay and rebuild, saying the church in Ruidoso became more than community.

“That’s our family here,” she said.