Q: I heard about a Bigfoot sighting not far from here. It happened a few years ago. There was a team of firefighters working on the Tres Lagunas fire in northern New Mexico. They saw a Bigfoot not far away, out in the open during the daytime, and it couldn’t have been a deer or bear. What do you think about that case?
A: I was asked the above question at a local writer’s group meeting by a fellow writer who heard some of my book subjects (including lake monsters and the chupacabra). I replied that I hadn’t heard of that specific sighting, but that I’d look into it. She seemed slightly surprised that I—as a New Mexico–based Bigfoot researcher of some minor renown—wasn’t familiar with such a significant, credible sighting in our home state.
Much of the Land of Enchantment is of course desert—and thus not an ideal habitat for a group of large creatures that presumably hide from scrutiny under the verdant canopy of the densely forested Pacific Northwest and other sylvan regions—but there are several forests and remote areas with water and food that could theoretically support large unknown animals. Occasional reports, none of them particularly credible, have emerged about Bigfoot sightings in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque (not far from where SI Editor Ken Frazier lives) and farther north. The Tres Lagunas fire she referred to was started by a tree falling on a power line on May 30, 2013, that burned 10,200 acres of land in the Pecos Canyon area of northern New Mexico over the course of three weeks.
I began researching the topic and soon realized why I hadn’t heard of the incident: It never happened, or at least not as described. As is often the case with these types of stories, the person who heard it got key details wrong. The alleged incident happened at the Del Loma fire in northern California in 2003 (which began on September 15 and burned approximately 3,000 acres)—not the Tres Lagunas fire in northern New Mexico in 2013. Other than different fires being separated by a decade and two states, the outline of the story was correct (as we will see, there was indeed a New Mexico connection).
Descriptions of the incident appear in several places online, including the forums of The Sasquatch Chronicles podcast, taken from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BRFO) website:
Firefighter describes multiple-witness sighting during the Loma Fire:
“I was working in the northern part of New Mexico training to be a Wildland Fire Fighter. In September 2003 (maybe the second week of that month) I was dispatched with 22 other people to the Del Loma Fire in the Shasta/Trinity Forest area, the Northern part of California. Each Crew had about 20 people, our plane that left Albuquerque held 2 crews. For almost the whole two weeks, we were all on standby. On the 4th to the last day of our 2 weeks of Fire call, we were setting up camp close to a river, about 5-10 miles out from the original forest fire. It was close to sun down when, a couple of guys were amazed at something. I heard them from inside my tent, but just ignored the whole thing until one of my crew members came and pulled me out of my tent.
I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at or for. He pointed across the river and I was in shock when he pointed out the biggest, hairiest mammal I had ever seen just walking along the river side minding his own business. It stopped and looked at us. The way he stood on his hind legs was like an ordinary human. He had dark, long hair and stood about 7ft tall with a muscular build.
At this point I was the 4th person standing there in amazement. Maybe about 5 minutes of watching him watch us, with more people coming out with flashlights (because the sun was still going down) he darted in to the trees. He was running, taking long strides, and was gone in about 3 seconds … and was literally pushing trees out of his way (not breaking them, but pushing them out of his way). The trees behind him on his path up the mountain were swaying back and forth. I was surprised to see to these trees moving because they are thick in width and very tall. By this time it was dark but lit enough to see which way he was headed. Up the mountain a little, there was a clearing, where we spotted him again before he disappeared for good. He made no noise, no yelling or screaming. He was just as timid as can be. I have heard many stories about Bigfoot, and known that they are real but when seeing one in real life … you get a sense of respect for them and just have that feeling that there is more to life than you know.” (https://tinyurl.com/y88lh3tl)
A user on the Sasquatch Chronicles forum with the handle “Papa–Yeti” responded to the account on May 3, 2015, with the following comment:
What I really find great about this encounter, is that it really shuts–up the pie holes of hard Skeptics! Why? Because Smoke Jumpers, and Fire crews are all business no bull shit people putting their own lives on the line, some perish in those forest fires, some die when their transport air craft crash into mountains because of flight errors, and mechanical failures. And so this man’s statement that he and others of the 22 men crew of the Fire fighters saw a SASQUATCH!! If it looks like a Sasquatch and moves like a Sasquatch then is not a hoax or a damn duck! So in this encounter case. Perfect encounter case and may there be many more just like this one.1
This report—touted by Bigfoot believers as a “great” and “perfect” encounter so credible that it’s sure to silence skeptics—was apparently interesting enough to merit a follow up by BFRO investigator Brandon Kiel, who added a few more details to his write up of the “Class A” sighting in report # 13419.2
Kiel states that the report was “submitted by witness on Saturday, December 31, 2005,” and that:
I spoke to the witness for nearly 45 minutes. She is very sincere and credible. Additional information gathered during the conversation: The time of day was dusk but still light enough to see color and detail. She says the animal was walking down the river bank approximately 25 yards from the campsite. It did not seem to notice the slowly gathering crowd until a few of them began to shine flashlights in its direction. It was brown in color and the hair was 5”-6” in length. She could not make out the sex of the animal. The eyes had a reflective shine to them but she could not make out whites of the eyes or a color. No one yelled at the animal or attempted to disturb it. At first it seemed intrigued by them but after about 2–3 minutes it became spooked and turned to run into the woods that lined the river banks. She said it showed great strength in that it easily pushed aside good sized trees to make its escape and that they could plot its path through the woods by watching the movements of the trees. The silhouette of the animal was seen again as it came into a clearing, and then went out of view. There were no vocalizations during the observation. The witness is female and from the Apache Indian Reservation (Jicarilla) in northern New Mexico. She is a now 21 year-old, reserve woodland firefighter.
The additional information (which would have been more useful as a verbatim quote, not a second-hand paraphrasing of what she said, as important details can easily be lost when summarizing) raises more questions than it answers, including about the animal’s remarkable proximity. Given how famously reclusive Bigfoot are—hence the proliferation of blurry photos and videos taken from a great distance—this particular creature seems to have been uncharacteristically cavalier about wandering near groups of people. At only twenty-five yards (seventy-five feet, or the length of a typical American swimming pool), the Bigfoot came very close to the group for several minutes. It’s also curious that the witness waited nearly two years to make a report.
It’s not clear how many of the crew saw the creature, but given its extended duration and the description of “more people” coming with flashlights, it seems likely that there were at least a dozen witnesses, possibly nearly twice that many. What of those other witnesses? Kiel concluded, “If you were one of the other eyewitnesses to this incident during the Del Loma Fire of September, 2003, please contact us via the Comments form.” As of mid-2018, fifteen years after the alleged sighting, there is no additional information about the event, suggesting that none of the other firefighters have come forward to corroborate her story. Kiel did not respond to queries asking if the BFRO had received any further information on the sighting.
Many Bigfoot eyewitnesses describe their encounters as life changing, and to see one up close for such an extended period of time must surely have been a profound experience even for the most hardened of firefighters. Yet no one else present that day has come forward to share their experience—even anonymously should they fear the conspiracy-esque “wall of skeptical ridicule” that some suggest “silences” witnesses (Joshua Blu Buhs, in his book Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, claims that ridicule is “the skeptics’ primary weapon” [p. 219]). The event was apparently so unremarkable that none of the firefighters searched the next morning for (or photographed) any mysterious footprints left on the riverbank or the trademark trail of trees pushed over with astounding ease.
Pseudoscience and Pseudo-Investigation
Perhaps even more surprising than the account itself is that the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, which touts itself as the world’s “only scientific research organization exploring the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery,” hasn’t investigated this potentially important “Class A” report. If this story is true as told, it could potentially be one of the most significant Bigfoot reports in modern American history. Given the duration, nearness, and multiple witnesses, others there that day might have gotten close-up photos or even video of the mysterious creature (the first cell phone cameras were introduced the year before). Yet Kiel and the BFRO seem curiously uninterested in pursuing the story.
Instead of posting a short addendum to the report seeking additional witnesses, Kiel should simply ask his anonymous informant who else was on her fire crew. Surely she knows the names of most of the people she battled blazes with for weeks. Why doesn’t the BRFO already have the names? Did Kiel not ask her? Or did she develop amnesia or refuse to reveal who else shared her astonishing experience? Presumably she would be eager to have others validate her story. Even if, like her, they wished to remain anonymous to the public, their information could corroborate—or, of course, debunk—her account.
Even without her cooperation, it wouldn’t be difficult to identify the firefighting crews dispatched to the Del Loma fire who camped near a river five to ten miles from where the fire started in the second week of September 2003. Firefighters, both paid and voluntary, are typically public servants; their names, positions, and assignments are not a secret. I could do it, but the burden of proof is of course on the claimant—in this case the anonymous firefighter and by extension the BFRO. I have neither the time nor interest to spend unpaid days or weeks investigating the sensational claims they promote. That’s their job, and if they can’t be bothered to make any effort to corroborate their single eyewitness to such a “credible” account, what does that say about their lesser accounts? How much time and effort does the BFRO spend on authenticating their Class B and Class C reports?
This sighting follows a familiar pattern for skeptical investigators: An initially “unexplainable” event witnessed by multiple eyewitnesses of unimpeachable credibility turns out upon closer inspection to hinge on a single anonymous person who offers no corroborating evidence at all. This case neatly illustrates the differences in approach (and what constitutes evidence) between Bigfoot believers and cryptozoology skeptics. To the BFRO, interviewing an eyewitness is the final step of an investigation; to a skeptic, it’s only the beginning.
Whether out of incompetence, indolence, ignorance of proper investigation procedures, or a tacit reluctance to dig too deeply into an inherently dubious claim, researchers of the “unexplained” (and ghost and Bigfoot researchers in particular) often offer merely the pretense of investigation. They adopt the approach of pioneering paranormal promoter Charles Fort (1874–1932), an avid aggregator of “anomalous” reports who did little or no real investigation to determine which were valid and which were not. My chief complaint about the paranormal community is not that they take these topics seriously; it’s that they don’t take them seriously enough.
- In contrast to Papa-Yeti’s sexist assumptions, the firefighter witness, according to researcher Brandon Kiel, is a woman.
- According to the BFRO’s Report Classification System, “All reports posted into the BFRO’s online database are assigned a classification: Class A, Class B, or Class C. The difference between the classifications relates to the potential for misinterpretation of what was observed or heard … . Class A reports involve clear sightings in circumstances where misinterpretation or misidentification of other animals can be ruled out with greater confidence.”