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Emergency Responders Can’t Always Reach People On Pajarito Mesa

Marisa Demarco / KUNM

On a huge stretch of mesa to the Southwest of Albuquerque, people have built dwellings. These homesteaders on Pajarito Mesa say when they call for emergency services, help isn’t always on its way.   

There are questions about the legality of land-ownership or even whether people should be living in this part of Bernalillo County. Some county officials say they don’t want to encourage anyone to move there by providing services.   

Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM
A map of the mesa at Carlos Proffit's house.

Without running water, without power, the mostly Hispanic and immigrant families on Pajarito Mesa are making a go of it on harsh terrain. When there are gunshots in the night, when a trailer goes up in flames or when someone’s having a heart attack, and they call 911, there’s a chance they won’t see flashing red lights cresting the horizon.

Carlos Proffit has been living on the mesa since the mid-80s in a solar-powered home. One night in 2012, he saw a greasy, black column of smoke rising into the sky. "Two old people, 9:30 at night, going to bed. Look out the window, black on black, look back, see little twinkle of flames in the arroyo."

He called 911 and had a familiar and frustrating conversation with dispatchers. No one came out. The next morning he discovered a burned up Nissan Pathfinder, and later Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies found the ashes and bones of two bodies inside.

Profitt said he doesn’t think emergency responders always want to come to Pajarito Mesa. "It’s dark out here. It’s dangerous. There’s a lot of shooting, a lot of crime," he said. "Thirty square miles of unpoliced USA, 15 minutes from two interstates. What do you think doesn’t happen here?"

Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM
A hand-painted road sign on Pajarito Mesa

People who live here aren’t on the same page as 911 operators, who have their own system for telling emergency responders where to go. "But when they want to show up, they call me, they tell me what they’re looking at, and I walk them in," he said. "That’s how good it’s working."

County officials tell another story. They say paths through the mesa are constantly changing, and often blocked all of a sudden one day. One of the entry points for Pajarito Mesa is maybe 20 minutes from Downtown Albuquerque. The road changes immediately.

"These trails here are pretty much eroded by the rain, you know, and the water," said Michael Gallegos, the county's emissary to Pajarito, which he traverses in four-wheel drive. He estimates there are between 700 and 800 people living on the mesa. 

Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM
Engine 54 is a special apparatus purchased by the county just to fight fires on the mesa.

"Again, they’re not the smoothest," he said. "And this area here gets covered with illegal dumping. And a lot of the residents here, they pretty much keep up with the cleaning and just throwing the trash to the side so they could keep entering." Up ahead, there are pickup bed-sized piles of black roofing material. 

Pablo Gabaldon has been an emergency communications operator for 14 years. "It’s difficult for the residents out there to give us a location because there’s no set addresses," he said. 

The county GPS-mapped the mesa a few years ago and tried to give people the coordinates of their homes. But county officials say because the population is transient, those longs strings of numbers don’t get passed along. 

"It’s hard for us when we’re maybe on an in-progress call and we’re maybe giving CPR instructions to somebody, and the rescue units can’t find them," Gabaldon said. "Or the engine’s just simply too heavy to get past a certain area, and they get stuck in sand."

That’s where engine 54 comes in. It’s smaller than a typical fire truck and has four-wheel drive. Because it carries 500 gallons of water, it still weighs a lot and still can’t manage unstable trails.

Over the last year or so, Fire Department Lt. Zeke Padilla took it upon himself to identify paths that fire trucks can use, sussed out roadblocks and pinpointed homes. "So that’s 229 structures that we have no way to get to," he said. "But now we’re going to be able to do that."

Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM
Lt. Zeke Padilla examines a map at Station 34 near Pajarito Mesa.

Padilla said he’s going to number all of the structures and get emergency responders and residents speaking the same language. "When they call that into dispatch, that point will correlate with the data that I’ve collected for that point," he said.

Now, county planners say they can’t put names on the trails or demand that they be kept open, because all of the property is privately owned by thousands of people.

Mesa resident Proffit has another theory: "They’re afraid if they legitimize this place in any way, it will make it more difficult to get us out of here."

Tax collectors, Proffit half-jokes, have no problem finding his house. 


Check out a map of the mesa. KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.