It was supposed to be a controlled burn, but a New Mexico fire spiraled out of control – NPR | Candle Made Easy



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The huge wildfire in New Mexico is now all but over. Now the people in the burned areas are trying to rebuild their lives. Alice Fordham reports from our member station KUNM.

PETER VELAZQUEZ: Come on, ladies.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Rancher Peter Velazquez calls about 20 cows and calves in a field next to his home.

VELAZQUEZ: I feed them every morning.

FORDHAM: That’s expensive, especially at a time when the cattle are usually grazing in the mountains that surround this verdant valley of the Mora River. This year these mountains are covered with burn marks.

VELAZQUEZ: We don’t have fences. No, they’re all burned. I don’t know what will happen.

FORDHAM: The Forest Service has banned grazing to give the mountains a chance to recover after the fire.

VELAZQUEZ: I don’t have a place to keep them. So now I’m still feeding.

FORDHAM: Nearby, in the woods, outside the town of Mora, I meet artist and teacher Anita Ross, and we look at the remains of a tin-roofed cabin that was her home for 20 years.

ANITA ROSS: Well, and there’s literally just tin on the floor. It burned really hot. There’s nothing left in there.

FORDHAM: It was cute, she says, with her artwork and woven baskets. A breeze through the blackened trees shakes the charred can. She shows me another bunch of twisted stuff that was a studio.

ROSS: I had every conceivable art stash in it for 30 years.

FORDHAM: She volunteered to teach art to local children.

ROSS: I had a lot of supplies, but they were all categorized. So, if I wanted to teach a papermaking class, bam, I’ve got my stuff. And I have to rethink all of this.

FORDHAM: Anita and her husband had been working on a new house. They can live there. But across the mountains in the town of Espanola, I meet Bernice Naranjo and her husband Tito, who began renovating a centuries-old home in 1971.

BERNICE NARANJO: Building from nothing, this tiny room that wasn’t even a room became a beautiful home.

FORDHAM: She tells me about a beautiful apple cherry tree there.

NARANJO: I made great jam, right? So that was a special treat. When the fire came and we finally got to see our country devastated by the fire, it was so sad because the chokecherry tree was cut down completely.

FORDHAM: Like many in this low-income area, you don’t have insurance. They say when they approached FEMA for help, the emergency response agency turned them down on the grounds that the house was not their primary residence. Bernice says she’s been spending time with her kids lately, but it’s been her home. You are not alone. According to initial estimates, hundreds of homes were lost. FEMA says it gave about $4 million to about 1,100 people. So with the simple split, that’s about $4,000 each. The agency says documentation is often a problem in this rural area, and it encourages people to appeal denials and call a legal aid hotline. Bernice says many displaced people have managed on their own.

NARANJO: Pay yourself, find money.

FORDHAM: And what upsets you the most is that this fire, the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire, started out as planned US Forest Service burns that escaped control.

NARANJO: We all feel the same sadness and anger towards the forest service that is so intense. I was actually going to sit down and get a bucket of ash from our house and send it to the forest service because they are responsible for that.

FORDHAM: This isn’t the first time the Forest Service has allowed what was supposed to be a controlled burn to escape in New Mexico with devastating results. In 2000, an escaped planned fire destroyed about 280 homes and damaged Los Alamos National Laboratory. At that time, Congress passed a law that all those affected would be fully compensated. That could happen this time too.

New Mexico legislatures managed to incorporate similar legislation into the annual national defense bill. It’s passed the House of Representatives and is on its way to the Senate. But it’s still a matter of timing. In 2000, FEMA rebuilt many homes, but two years later, some people were still living in trailers. A government report from 2003 documents unpaid debts and people here say they are in dire straits now. Do you remember rancher Peter Velazquez?

VELAZQUEZ: That fire really set us back – life changing for sure.

FORDHAM: His cows are now pasture where he usually grows hay for use over the winter. If he doesn’t get help soon…

VELAZQUEZ: Well, I think there’s a lot of us that probably need to sell. Either – well, like myself, I might have to get rid of half.

FORDHAM: While waiting to see if compensation will go into effect, local attorney Antonia Roybal-Mack is preparing a mass tort suit against the Forest Service. She is unconvinced by the report the agency produced on the fire.

ANTONIA ROYBAL-MACK: Basically we got it all wrong, but we get it all wrong all the time.

FORDHAM: She wants to sue to change the planned burning policy and get help for local people like her own family.

ROYBAL-MACH: We’re talking about generational land, people living off the land — so filing lawsuits to heal them.

FORDHAM: Things are happening now. The landscape gets help. The National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers built flood defenses. There are plans for reseeding. But people probably seem to be struggling for some time yet.

For NPR News, I’m Alice Fordham.

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