May 11, 2022
When news of the Hermit’s Peak Fire reached Las Vegas on April 6, New Mexico Highlands University jumped in to help with relief efforts.
In coordination with Dennis Esquibel, the San Miguel County/City of Las Vegas City Emergency Manager and the New Mexico Highlands University Emergency Operations Command team for the combined Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires, Highlands University has been assisting with housing first responders and evacuees and providing essential services to the community as the fires rage on.
“I have seen the devastation and impact these wildfires are having on our community,” Esquibel said. “And it has been an extraordinary experience to work with key partners such as New Mexico Highlands University and many others who continue to work together to solve one complex issue at a time.”
Denise Montoya is the Incident Commander for the Highlands Emergency Operation Command Team, which is leading the university’s fire relief efforts. According to Montoya, NMHU has been working closely with local, state, and federal officials to coordinate resources.
“They’ve been instrumental in providing relief,” Montoya said. “It’s heartwarming to receive such amazing support from so many entities; from local, state, and federal government officials, and the American Red Cross.”
On a local level, NMHU has been working in coordination with San Miguel County and City of Las Vegas emergency operations to provide additional housing to evacuees. When the United World College-USA had to evacuate, NMHU hosted over 200 evacuees on the Las Vegas campus overnight, provided meals and entertainment, and helped facilitate their transition to the Glorieta Conference Center the next day.
In addition, NMHU continues to house numerous police officers, Game & Fish officers, state and local firefighters, Red Cross volunteers, several evacuees from the community with disabilities who cannot sleep on cots (including service animals), and NMHU faculty, staff, and students displaced due to the wildfires. The university has also provided the Gene Torres Golf Course and the rugby field for federal, state, and local firefighters.
Starting this week, the Luna Community College Childcare Center will be relocated to the NMHU campus, too. Mary Earick, who serves on the university’s emergency team as assistant leader for academics, is overseeing the Luna Childcare Center’s transition to NMHU’s campus. She said the university will be providing space for 18 children between the ages of two and five, and ten staff members, including the center’s director.
“This program services the whole community,” Earick said. “We’re also providing office space and space to hold events with families. Highlands is 100% committed to ensuring that children, youth, and families in Las Vegas have a minimum disruption in their services. I’m so excited to be able to collaborate with my colleagues at Luna.”
NMHU Operation Section Leader and Campus Police Chief, Clarence Romero, said the university police and security departments are also assisting with fire efforts.
“I have worked all over the world, and I have worked on numerous emergency events,” Romero said. “It just amazes me how professional and compassionate NMHU is.”
Emergencies are not new for the NMHU community. The university successfully navigated a cyberattack in 2019 and has implemented a range of protective measures for the campus community during the COVID-19 pandemic. As President Sam Minner observed, employees and students at Highlands are well-practiced at acting quickly and coming to the aid of fellow community members.
“I am so thankful to be working in partnership with all the local, state, and federal agencies and organizations to help provide whatever we can to support the community,” Minner said. “These last few years have not been easy, but as I know well, people in Northern New Mexico are strong and resilient. We will do whatever it takes to get through this. Our number-one commitment at Highlands is the wellbeing of our community.”
According to Romero, the firefighters on campus include a unit from the Santa Fe Fire Department who are protecting the water treatment plant in Montezuma. Romero said his security staff makes daily water, coffee, and snack deliveries to first responders at all the checkpoints across Las Vegas. The donations of these items come from Memorial Middle School and local churches, in what Romero described as a true community collaboration.
Montoya said that in addition to serving as a conduit for donations, NMHU is also providing valuable, up-to-date information about financial, mental health, legal, and other fire information resources on social media and the university website (www.nmhu.edu/hermit). The website is updated multiple times a day and all information is confirmed for validity.
“We’re making sure that our lists are the conduit for relevant, up-to-date resources for those impacted by the fires,” Montoya said.
NMHU has prioritized providing food for the community. In addition to feeding the United World College-USA during its stay on campus, NMHU food and facilities management vendor Sodexo has provided meals for the County Emergency Operation Command team while ensuring a continuous meal schedule for the campus community as the semester draws to an end.
Although NMHU canceled several anticipated end-of-year events, the university transformed a number of those events into fire relief efforts. Andrew Ehling, Highlands University’s Athletics Director, said he had to cancel the university’s inaugural athletic awards banquet. Although it was a disappointment for the students, he was glad to be able to donate the banquet food to evacuees.
“We provided it to Isaac Sandoval at The Skillet restaurant, where he prepared it and took it to the Memorial Middle School shelter,” Ehling said. “We had three pans of pulled pork and brisket, tortillas, and vegetables that we donated. It was a group consensus by the athletic administration; we wanted to get it to the people who needed it.”
Across the Highlands University campus, people have been pitching in with fire relief efforts. Student, staff, and faculty senates joined forces to facilitate a donation drive for fire evacuees, and the Love & War Best Chocolate Dessert Contest event raised $6,500 that will go entirely to Highlands community members impacted by the fire. In addition, the university development office has created a NMHU Fire Relief Fund to continue to raise money for anyone at Highlands who has suffered losses due to the fire.
Vice President of Student and Donor Engagement Terri Law said this fund will provide additional support to the entire campus community on top of the existing funds that support students in need. These additional student funds include the Dean Ray Farmer Student Emergency Fund that students can apply for if they have emergency needs related to the fire or any other emergency, and the Student Extreme Hardship Fund that is also available to support students who have been impacted by the wildfire.
Donations for either the Farmer or the NMHU Fire Relief Fund can be made at the foundation website, nmhufoundation.org, by clicking “Give Now” and designating a gift for either fund in the appropriate field on the donation form.
“The Farmer Fund has been essential for helping our students through the pandemic, and we already know that student needs related to the fires will be significant and long-lasting,” Law said. “No student has ever been turned away from the Farmer Fund due to lack of donations. Generous donors have stepped in to make sure all students in need could be funded.”
Law said she hopes that donations for those impacted by the fires continue.
“We are seeing so many of our faculty and staff in Northern New Mexico losing homes, livestock, and vehicles to the fire. Many more have been evacuated and have had unexpected expenses related to the departures forced by the fires,” Law said. “The NMHU Fire Relief Fund helps, in concert with other community resources, to get those affected by the fires back on their feet, and it will help keep the NMHU community together.”
“We’ve been working closely with the Emergency Operations Command for Las Vegas and San Miguel County, with the city, county commissioners, with the governor’s office, with our federal congressional delegates, the Red Cross, and many others,” Montoya said. “Together, we can continue to make a difference for our communities and hopefully soon transition into a rebuild phase.”