Jal youth campers evacuated from Ruidoso wildfire

By John Earp

This past week, youth campers and adult leaders from the Jal Church of God traveled as they do every year to the Bonita Park Campground a few miles north of Ruidoso, NM, for the 2024 Youth Camp for the New Mexico/El Paso Region of the Church of God. This year turned out to be one of a kind in more than one way. First, a record number of youths, 120 in all from various churches from across the region, attended this year’s youth camp. Eighteen young people from Jal Church of God, accompanied by six adult leaders, participated in the camp, which is always a high point of the year for those who attend. Spiritual worship services and recreational activities were planned in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. From hiking to zip lining to rock wall climbing to archery and more, recreational activities abound at Bonita Park.

Unfortunately, this year would be different. Monday morning about 9:00 a.m. on the Mescalero Apache Reservation just outside of Ruidoso, a wildfire was detected. At first, it was reported to have been likely sparked by lightning, but by the weekend, the FBI was investigating the fire as a potential arson, with a $10,000 reward offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone found responsible for setting the fire. As campers were registering and settling in Monday afternoon at Bonita Park, huge, billowing smoke clouds could be seen filling the sky to the south. Monday evening during the first worship service of the week, adult leaders from Portales decided it would be best for them to evacuate their campers.

However, the sheriff’s department as well as the Bonita Park administration informed the youth camp staff at that time that no evacuation order as yet had been issued for the campground. Further, staff were informed that the expanding South Fork Fire was at that time heading towards the southeast of the campground, and was likely not going to directly threaten the camp. Also on Monday evening, an evacuation order for the entire Village of Ruidoso was given. The fire at that point was estimated to have grown to over 1700 acres in about 12 hours, with continuing strong winds in the forecast. As a result of the fire in Ruidoso, the glow of which was visible from the campground that night, internet service went down at Bonita Park. This prevented normal communication between camp staff and parents back home.

Tuesday morning, the skies appeared almost completely clear on the campground, but a few hours later, the prevailing winds shifted towards the campground, with nearby Alto suffering several structure fires occurring in nearby Alto as a result of the new direction of the wildfire. Tuesday afternoon, the New Mexico Church of God (NMCOG) Youth and Discipleship Director, Pastor Sammy Mullins of Carlsbad, informed the camp staff that we had been told to be set to evacuate, but had not been given “Go” status of actual evacuation as of yet. Staff were also informed in that meeting that the sheriff’s office and the Bonita Park administration had given assurance that we would receive several hours’ previous notice prior to a “Go” order to evacuate.

Evacuation notice was given to Bonita Park Campground about four o’clock Tuesday afternoon. All campers and volunteer staff had been instructed to meet at the Armstrong Tabernacle in the event of evacuation. All campers were checked out with adults whom they had traveled to camp with, with eleven campers (three from Grants, NM and eight from Bloomfield) had been dropped off by parents and/or adults from their home churches. Bonita Park had informed the NMCOG leadership that they had enough buses on hand to evacuate all campers if need be. The campers needing rides were taken by other church vans and vehicles that had room, with the youth director and his wife Crystal taking the Bloomfield campers to Albuquerque to meet their parents.

All campers and workers were accounted for. The Jal campers, driven by Pastors John and Jaime Earp of Jal as well as Y0uth Pastor Aaron Faulkner, traveled through Capitan to Roswell to Artesia to Jal, arriving at the fellowship hall about 11:oo p.m. Tuesday night. As of Monday, the wildfire had not progressed to the campground property, and with the assistance of much-needed rain and cooler weather, the fire had moved from 0% containment to 27% containment. Unfortunately, over 1400 structures in Ruidoso, including homes and businesses, had been burned in the fires.

Tragically, two people had been confirmed dead by the authorities due to the fires, with several still missing and unaccounted for. Firefighters were continuing to work to put out the fires, with investigation into the origin of the fires ongoing. President Joe Biden had approved Governor Lujan’s request for declaration of disaster in order to obtain federal assistance. Residents were being allowed to return to their properties in Ruidoso on Monday morning this week, with evacuation orders being lifted. Over 17,000 acres had burned from the South Fork Fire, and over 7800 acres had been burned by the Salt Fork Fire.