Brenda Iovino, 67, was listening to the radio inside her Tres Piedras home Sunday afternoon (Jan. 7) when she smelled smoke.
She ran to her living room first and checked her woodstove. There was no fire going, nothing amiss. She then went to her kitchen, where all of her appliances were turned off. But looking through her bedroom door, she could see black smoke rolling against her window. Then she saw the flames.
Her back porch was on fire.
She filled a bucket with water and doused her back door, but the fire was growing and the door was melting. She dialed 911.
A dispatcher first notified local fire departments in Carson and Tres Piedras. Iovino would later learn there was a "calling system" issue with the Tres Piedras fire department - which was not far from the home - leading to a delay. Tres Piedras Fire Chief Wayne Coffman explained Wednesday (Jan. 10) that his department's pagers weren't working at the time of the fire due to an issue with their repeaters, the component that receives and re-transmits signals.
It took around 45 minutes for the first firefighters to arrive, Iovino said.
While she waited, the fire continued to grow, and Iovino moved quickly to salvage whatever she could. Her animals - two dogs and a cat - were her first priorities.
The dogs were in the front yard when the fire started, but her cat was somewhere still inside, along with all of her possessions. She grabbed her car keys, opened her front door so her cat could escape and went outside. When the cat didn't appear, Iovino went back in the house to look for it, encountering the black smoke again. It filled the home and carried a caustic chemical smell with it, she said.
"It's cooking pretty good," one of the first firefighters relayed from the scene. "We can't do a whole lot here without air masks."
The Hondo-Seco, Ojo Caliente and Taos fire departments were contacted to provide additional resources to combat the blaze.
The Taos County Sheriff's Office and New Mexico State Police were also called to the scene to provide support.
Iovino told a deputy that she suspected the cause of the fire may have been arson. The New Mexico State Fire Marshal was contacted to investigate this allegation.
As firefighters spent the afternoon dousing the home, Iovino watched it burn and collapse in on itself. "I was watching all my personal belongings disintegrate," she said.
Taos County Fire Chief Michael Cordova arrived at the home on Monday (Jan. 8). The structure was still smoldering.
"The home's a total loss," Cordova said. "Right now, the cause is unknown."
Cordova said that - partly due to the especially dry winter season thus far - the state is backed up with fire investigations. Coming back with a finding on the cause of Sunday's fire could take anywhere from one to five months, he said.
On Monday, Iovino returned to the site of the burned home. The flames had died down and the smoke had abated. Her process of rebuilding, however, is just getting started.
Iovino has been staying with friends and is spending hours on the phone with insurance agents.
A local writer, Iovino was born in New York and grew up in Manhattan. In her 20s, she moved out to Ruidoso and eventually sought property in Northern New Mexico. The site of the burn was the first property a real estate agent showed her.
"I knew right away this was home," she said.
A GoFundMe page has been launched to raise funds for Iovino, which can be accessed at bit.ly/2qS0G0X.