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New Mexico wildfires: “When this place burns, watch out!”

By Milli Legrain  

Blog Editor- National Latino Farmers and Ranchers 

Photo Credits: Arnold Trujillo

Daniel Encinias’ home went up in flames in April. He lost the house he built himself to the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. Encinias has been living with his wife and three daughters in a trailer ever since.

After moving his cattle down south, he now has to deal with floods bringing debris crashing into his property. 

“It is still flooding now. It looks like a war zone with sandbags in front of everybody’s properties,” he  said in August from his trailer in San Miguel County.

Victims speak out

Like many others, Encinias is frustrated at the federal government’s sluggish response to a wildfire started by the US Forest Service (USFS) five months ago, when it lost control of a “controlled burn”, a standard practice designed to keep the forest healthy. The fire destroyed hundreds of homes in a largely Hispanic area, where families have been established for generations.

Encinias says a string of different evaluators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have repeatedly offered to rehouse his family in two separate trailers over the past few months.

“They are doing a lot of evaluating instead of doing,” he said in an interview with National Latino Farmers and Ranchers.

“Throwing my daughters in a separate trailer is not a solution. So I said don’t bring me anything. I told them I would do it on my own,” he recalls. 

Ultimately, he wants the government to pay for rebuilding his home. But he says the $37,000 he ended up receiving from FEMA won’t cut it. 

According to FEMA, 1251 New Mexico residents recovering from the ongoing wildfires and floods -like Encinias- have been approved to receive $4.8 million towards temporary housing, housing repairs or replacement, personal property, and direct housing. 

But Dennis García, another victim whose family has been in the area since the 1830s, said FEMA had little interest in helping him when the sawmill operation he has been running since 1983 in Mora County was damaged in the fire.

His house is still standing, but at 60 years old, he doubts he can get his business up and running again. “40 years almost,” he says. “And all I got out of this fire is this cough.” 

García, a former firefighter says he spent 28 days fighting the flames himself with the help of his niece and a water tanker. He believes he may have saved as many as six neighboring houses from the blaze. 

A matchbox waiting to go off

Public officials from Rio Arriba County recently penned a letter to Senator Luján of New Mexico to express their outrage and lack of trust in the US Forest Service’s ability to properly manage federal lands.  

The latest fire -known as Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon is not the first wildfire started by a government agency in New Mexico. Back in 2000, another prescribed burn orchestrated by the National Park Service (NPS) spun out of control destroying hundreds of homes in Los Alamos County, home to hundreds of educated and wealthy government employees who worked at the laboratory that  developed the atomic bomb.

In June, during a visit to New Mexico, President Biden met with victims like Encinias and his family and announced that the federal government would cover 100% of costs related to debris removal and emergency protective measures.

More recently FEMA declared that “residents affected by the wildfires, flooding, mudflows and debris flows” have until October 7th to apply for Individual Assistance .

But victims, government workers, local governments and even members of Congress have spoken out against a federal government response deemed insufficient. 

Ron Ortega, a rancher and former employee at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), had to sell his cattle after his property was damaged by the fires and finds it hard to believe that there is still no system in place to compensate victims: “22 years ago, the National Park Service burnt down portions of Los Alamos in the Cerro Grande fire. The same mistakes that were made on that fire were made on this one. It seems like nobody paid attention.” 

Back in 2000, the Clinton administration spent over US$240 million in compensation and mitigation under the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Program for individuals, business, tribal governments and others.

A glimmer of hope

Today, a glimmer of hope lies in the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act, a bill up for voting in the Senate this month modeled on the law that got the federal government to compensate the victims of Los Alamos. 

In a phone interview with National Latino Farmers and Ranchers, a spokesperson for Senator Luján, one of the bill’s lead sponsors said: “ The Government started this fire and it should be incumbent upon the federal government to make New Mexicans whole and take responsibility for it.”  

Many locals feel much of the damage and suffering could have been avoided if indigenous knowledge had played a part in government planning.  “Nobody in their right mind strikes a match around here in March, April or May,” says Ron Ortega, who owns and manages the Cañon del Medio Ranch with his wife Cara. 

Ultimately, many on the ground would like local voices to be taken into account in the management of forests. “They need to work a little closer with the communities who live near the forest lands,” said Max Trujillo, a San Miguel County Commissioner.

Ortega says his father and grandfather warned him years ago that a fire was coming. They said “Cuando se queme este lugar, cuídense.” In other words: “When this place burns, watch out.”

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