'It’s Devastating'

Family of Patrick Pearson killed in South Fork Fire in Ruidoso speak out


Patrick Pearson played bass and sang ‘90s cover songs, along with country and Spanish music three or four times a week at local bar Quarters in Ruidoso.

He was known to cook up a pot of taco soup for his friends, of which he made many since moving to Ruidoso full-time in 2021 to play a gig.

He died probably in the evening of June 17 or the next morning as the South Fork and Salt fire ripped through the popular tourist village amid the Sacramento Mountains and Lincoln National Forest, but Pearson’s body wasn’t found until the next day as fire crews sifted through ashes of the decimated hotel.

Pearson, 60, was a private kind of person, but made friends wherever he went, said his 36-year-old daughter Hilary Mallak. His move following a divorce in 2008 from Albuquerque to Ruidoso saw Pearson staying in the historic Swiss Chalet Inn.

“It’s devastating,” Mallak said in an interview with the Ruidoso News. “People spend their whole lives there. People retire there. That’s what my dad was doing. He said he’d spend his entire life there.”

Pearson's son and Mallak's little brother Zach Pearson, 33, of Santa Rosa said he spoke to his dad last on Father's Day, and tried to reach him Monday with no success. The family also called shelters set up in the region, mostly in Roswell, for word of their father.

"I was kind of hoping everything was okay and he didn't have (phone) service. Come Tuesday, we still hadn't heard from him," Zach Pearson said. "Nobody had seen him. We really didn't have much information to go off."

The South Fork Fire burned about 16,335 acres in the Ruidoso area as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the New Mexico Forestry Division, leading to a full evacuation ordered for all residents on Monday. The nearby Salt Fire burned another 7,071 acres south of the village simultaneously, and Ruidoso Downs was also evacuated the next day.

By the most recent estimates, 1,400 structures were lost in the wake of the fires. 

Family forced to wait as fires shut down Ruidoso

One of the structures lost was the Swiss Chalet, built in 1962 and nestled among the picturesque mountain vistas that were covered by a thick blanket of smoke as Ruidoso residents fled their homes during the fires.

It’s where Pearson was living when the fires crept at first into town, then exploded, tripling in size over Monday night. He was still healing from a recent out of town surgery after breaking his leg and returning to the Chalet on June 10.

Pearson had arranged a ride out of town with friends, but it was too late as that vehicle was denied entry to Ruidoso as the highways were shut down.

So, he appeared to set out on foot, Mallak said, using a walker. Eventually, she said the smoke appeared to become too much for Pearson. He was found curled up in a fetal position in the hotel’s parking lot.

"I know he was in pain already with his leg being broken," Zach Pearson said. "Being in a walker trying to escape all that couldn't have been easy. I just hope he didn't suffer for so long."

While the fires were overtaking the village, Mallak followed the story on TV some 300 miles away in Albuquerque where she lived her entire life. She said while it was sad to see the forest burning, she didn’t expect tragedy to strike her family.

She heard later that Pearson had last spoke to a friend at about 4 p.m., June 16, saying he had a bag packed and was ready to leave Ruidoso.

“That’s the last anyone had heard from him,” Mallak said. “You don’t think it’s that bad, especially being far away. I was watching it on the news and I did try to get ahold of him. By then, the cell towers were out but we didn’t know that. We didn’t really get any updates from him.”

The family was forced to wait for word from Pearson. Mallak said her father returned their calls during previous wildfires in Ruidoso, most recently when the McBride Fire burned about 6,159 acres and led to the evacuation of 4,500 residents in April 2022.

An elderly couple was found dead among the rubble of the McBride.

“We were hopeful for the majority of the day, until we heard people were hearing from their loved ones, and we hadn’t heard anything,” Mallak said.

Zach Pearson said he called New Mexico State Police dispatch, provided a few more identifying details and was face to face with a State Police officer soon after, receiving news he hoped he wouldn't.

"I had a state police officer come to my door and he said my dad was gone. He didn't make it. I was in disbelief. It's the biggest shock of my life," Zach Pearson said. "I don't have my dad anymore."

A father, grandfather, musician and cook

Mallak’s daughter Harlynn was born on July 29, 2023 and she said Pearson was looking forward to being a grandfather. He had several custom items made to welcome Harlynn into the world, Mallak said, as the girl joined her two teenage sons.

“He was very excited about that,” Mallak said. “They all knew I wanted a daughter at some point.”

She said she spoke to him about weekly since he moved from Albuquerque for that first gig in Ruidoso about three years ago, and to escape the big city for scenic mountain vistas.

“What took him to Ruidoso was he always wanted to get out of Albuquerque,” Mallak said. “He got a gig in 2021 and fell in love with it. He never came back.”

In Ruidoso, Pearson played in a band with Craig Rivera. Rivera's daughter Christiana Alvarez of Oceanside, California said the bond between her dad and Pearson since they were teenagers meant he was "like and uncle" to her. She said she talked with Pearson frequently, especially for counsel when her son died at a young age.

"My dad told me he never saw Pat mad in all the years he's known Pat. He's always been that person − my dad was the one sticking up for him," Alvarez said. "He (Pat) was funny. he had a humor. But the one thing was: he was simply just kind."

She recalled a kind man, always excited to perform and have a good time.

"It was really nice because every time I'd go listen to them (at Quarters), there was always people dancing," Alvarez said. "It was people in their early 20s to couples in their 60s and 70s. It was a mixture, and it wasn't just about alcohol. It was about the music.

Before his passion of music drew him to the mountains, Mallak said Pearson was strong father, who attended many of her and her sister Samantha Garcia’s dance and cheerleading events.

She also remembered her dad as the family cook, known for his “taco soup” he’d frequently prepare for friends he met through music and “simpler southern food” he’d prepare for the family.

“We loved to go see him play,” she said. “He was the main cook. That’s what I remember. He like to make people happy.”

Garcia, 31, of Albuquerque said she remembered a father born to perform. He sang during her first dance with husband Leon Garcia on their wedding day.

“My dad had such a gift and passion for singing and entertaining. He played the bass guitar and made lifelong friends doing what he loved,” she said. “I have many fond memories of going to his gigs and dancing to him singing. He actually sang to my husband and I during our first dance at my wedding. He was well loved and will be greatly missed.”

Zach Pearson said it was his dream to join his dad on stage. That's why he took up the guitar. After his father's passing, Zach still has recordings he said bring back the cherished memories of following his parents to county fairs, festivals and other event to hear his dad's deep, country-tinged voice reminiscent of George Strait.

"He was an amazing musician. He made a part-time career out of it for most of his life," Zach Pearson said. "He'd go all over and play, and everybody loved his music. There's nobody that didn't fall in love with my dad's singing voice."

That voice was silenced by the South Fork Fire.

Fire crews continued working to control the blaze in the days after Pearson’s death, hoping to bring an end to the chaos gripping the village, and prevent any more tragedies from hurting families like his.