Terrell Shelley said he saw the first sparks of what would become part of the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history.
"I've been here 65 years. I've never seen any (fire) like this one," said Shelley.
Shelley said he could see the first flames from the Baldy fire just 10 miles away from his ranch near the base of Shelley Peak. But when Shelley informed the National Forest Service, he claimed that he was told the area was too dangerous to access.
"They could have put that fire out," said Shelley. "I don't care if they said the terrain was too rough, but it is too rough now to put out, the way it's burning.""
Shelley says the Baldy fire, which would develop into the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire, began with a single tree that was struck by lightning.
"The fire started on the May 9. Just before daylight, I could see the flames up there, just one tree burning," Shelley said. As soon as he saw the smoke, he decided to share his discovery with Gila National Forest Service spokeswoman Andrea Martinez.
Martinez said she shares a good rapport with Shelly, a long-time resident of the Gila, and remembered hearing from him before heading to work on May 9th. She said she alerted dispatch and her supervisors as soon as she could, but the terrain was too treacherous to send out crews at that point.
"The forest supervisor, the fire control officer, and the dispatcher, all of them were notified," said Shelly. "I told them, 'It's on fire. And there's a snag burning and if the wind picks up like it did a week ago, it's gonna go over the top of the mountain in nothing flat.'"
Shelley's prediction seems to have come true; the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire charred about 280,000 acres of the Gila so far. With containment efforts still underway, Shelley will have to watch the fire he says that he tried so hard to stop, continue to burn through decades of memories spent in the forest he calls home.