Snow strands residents for week in area west of Madrid

January 4, 2019

Matthew Smith latched on a pair of snowshoes Thursday and headed west from his home on rural Baja Waldo Road to his neighbor’s home up a steep hill across some cross-country terrain.

The snow in this rural area, which sits west of Madrid and south of Interstate 25, sparkled under bright sunlight, and the hills looked like a frosted dream.

But this wasn’t just a social call.

For a week, some of Smith’s neighbors on Red Rock Road on the western edge of Santa Fe County have been stranded in their homes — their own two feet the only way in or out of their snow-covered road. Smith was taking one neighbor an extra pair of snowshoes.

“Out here, we just count on each other,” Smith said. “The go-to is your neighbor.”

But a week of being unable to leave their driveways has left some of the Red Rock Road residents feeling resentful that they haven’t been able to count on county government to help them get out of their snowy predicament.

“I want to hold the county responsible,” Red Rock resident Lori Sontag said Thursday. “They should have done something.”

Santa Fe County officials say they’re doing what they can to help residents snowed in on various roads, prioritizing getting emergency services to residents who need urgent medical care.

“Our strategy has been to make direct contact, to see directly what their issues are and then to prioritize [those who have] immediate needs,” said Martin Vigil, the county’s emergency manager.

Some of the most immediate cases of need, Vigil said, in which people were running out of critical medication or had other emergency issues, were addressed earlier this week with the help of neighbors or fire and emergency personnel.

On Thursday night, the county sent a news release telling residents that officials are “working to alleviate any life safety issues” in these areas, including helping them get medication, food, water and ambulance service.

“We did make some headway [Thursday] using some volunteer fire personnel, some neighbors … but it’s been slow going,” Vigil said. “It’s in a part of the county where it has been really difficult, even in the best of times, to negotiate these roads.”

Complicating life for residents in this stretch of the county is a network of private roads — which the county says it’s not allowed to plow.

According to Tessa Jo Mascareñas, a county spokeswoman, “Santa Fe County cannot legally provide access on private property unless a state of emergency is declared.”

A state of emergency would have to be declared by the governor or county commissioners, Mascareñas said.

As of Thursday evening, neither had happened.

“We are very concerned about their predicament,” Mascareñas said. “… We are going to continue to monitor the situation in the event that we may be able to offer some sort of guidance about a solution.”

The lack of help in areas like Red Rock Road have prompted frustration among some residents who say the county isn’t doing enough.

Red Rock Road runs along a ridgetop in the Galisteo Dam area. Neighbors estimate the road has between a foot and 4 feet of snow where wind has blown it into drifts.

And while residents have hired a backhoe operator to help dig them out, efforts have been hindered by a steep hill, too dangerous to drive down and very difficult to plow up.

“We’re trying to be self-reliant; we just got drilled,” said resident Larry Kurtz, who hired the plow driver. “This was a completely unexpected event.”

Lori Sontag and her husband, who live atop the steep hill and are among those who have been snowed in for a week, have had to boil snow for water because their water pipes are frozen.

Resident Lynn Allen said her husband started to ration his heart medication to make it last, unsure whether the snow would melt or someone might help them dig out of their snowy road.

And Beverly Antaeus, who runs Bridging the Worlds animal sanctuary on Red Rock Road, has been worried one of her dogs might die.

Of the 23 dogs at the sanctuary, Antaeus said six are too feral to come inside. They’re sleeping in outdoor kennels, and she’s run out of straw to pack in as insulation.

“Every night for the past week, I’ve absolutely been expecting to wake up and find a few peacefully asleep, you know?” she said. “They’ve been through winters before, this is just the worst that I’ve ever seen.”

All of the Red Rock Road residents who spoke with The New Mexican said they were getting by with food and water — sometimes thanks to the generosity of neighbors willing to trek through the snow.

But many were frustrated.

“We’ve been paying taxes,” Allen said. “You’d think they’d come out and do the road every 15 years.”

Neighbors recall a similar situation when a storm hit in the final days of 2006. That time, some said, a snowcat helped clear the road.

Vigil said the county has reached out to Public Service Company of New Mexico about possibly using the utility’s snowcat Friday. That kind of partnership through emergency management wouldn’t violate the private road policy, he said.

“We understand the frustration, and many people may not know what we’re actually doing to help in the county,” Vigil said. “There have been a lot of people [willing to] help their fellow neighbors, and a lot of our partnerships that we’ve established have come through to help. We’re trying to do the best we can, but this is not a suburban environment by any stretch of the matter.”

Even on Red Rock Road, things seemed to be looking up Thursday.

Smith agreed to help Allen’s husband get more heart medication. And the man Red Rock neighbors hired to plow their road, after two days of work, finally cleared the steep hill Thursday, Kurtz said.

He was hopeful hilltop residents a mile or so from the grade will see the plow soon.

“We’re going to make this happen,” Kurtz said.

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