Danger Zone

Discouraged and displaced Northern New Mexicans bear the brunt of fire’s destruction

MORA—Herman Romero was born a rancher—the fourth-generation kind.

The 60-year-old makes his home in tiny La Cueva, about 5 miles south of Mora. He makes his living in Chacon, 20 miles the other side of town, on a 400-acre spread that has been in his family since the 1800s. Romero has been working the ranch himself for more than three decades; these days, he runs about 65 head of bulls and heifers, plus another 40 calves.

So when the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire began its merciless march through the area last month and government officials ordered evacuations, there was never a question for Romero.

“They still expect us to up and leave,” he tells SFR in an interview from his home on May 20. “I didn’t leave the first time they told us to go, and I’m still not going to leave.”

And Romero hasn’t left since the blaze began eight weeks ago. Standing on his ranch split by Highway 121, Romero’s property spans the valley and evidence of the ongoing fire is everywhere.

A hot, active fire churns out thick, white and black smoke to the south; a mosaic of charred trees and green ponderosas, not fully burned, coats the eastern slope of Romero’s ranch, a former home, now twisted and scorched into a pile of corrugated roofing and bricks.

Romero isn’t throwing a hurricane party—the sort you might’ve read about in the runup to Katrina, Hugo or other large-scale disasters that sent clear, advance signals to either leave or die. Rather, like many others who live an agrarian lifestyle that’s foreign to many New Mexicans in this county of 4,500 people, he easily and angrily rolls out a litany of concerns about the government’s actions before and during the largest wildfire in state history as he explains his reasons for staying.

Romero and others who spoke with SFR question the decision to try a controlled burn—a conservation strategy that went sideways this time, ultimately leading to this mega-blaze—in the brutal April winds of this Northern New Mexico spring. They struggle with the complicated government prohibitions on resident-led thinning. They criticize the “back-burning” techniques employed to demolish fuel sources once the fire was already cooking. And they can’t imagine why they haven’t been allowed to access their lands during the month-plus since the fire started burning.

“I’m pretty pissed off, because we’ve lost so much of what we’ve protected all our lives,” Romero says. “We want to protect what we have left; it’s not much.”

He does not believe either of his properties is still in danger, but Forest Service and State Police officials have kept Romero from traveling back and forth between them.

“We’ve had some serious problems,” he says. “I’ve had a helluva time getting up [to the ranch in Chacon] with all the roadblocks and the obnoxious law enforcement people…But I know this country like the back of my hand. I know ways in and out of different areas; some of them are legal, some are not, but for your livelihood, you have to do what you have to do.”

Romero is a former Type-1 hotshot firefighter, and he’s never seen tactics like those deployed to tackle this blaze. He’s careful to distinguish between those giving the orders and those on the ground doing the work as he questions why so many Type-1 designates appear to be working from pickup trucks and why upwards of 20 bulldozers meant to cut suppression lines are instead sitting on the backs of trailers.

As for the back-burning strategy, in which officials are igniting what they consider to be easy tinder for the fire?

“They’re just burning everything we have,” Romero says. “And backing up, if they had been more aggressive, I believe this fire could have been stopped a long time ago. I’ve never seen the kinds of tactics these people are using. It’s really different.”

An exasperated Art Vigil has just returned from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s temporary office at the Las Vegas evacuation center, located at the former Memorial Middle School. His home on Highway 94 was destroyed by the fire.

Like many others, Vigil expressed skepticism over FEMA’s process to provide financial relief. The complicated procedure to secure grants has left many feeling that no compensation will be enough.

The most recent numbers from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office show that about 2,700 applications have been submitted to FEMA. Of those, 702 households have received some portion of the $1.8 million approved assistance.

The governor’s office estimated close to 650 structures have been destroyed in the fire.

Kevin Skillen and his wife, April, live just over the hill from Mora proper, with seven horses, seven goats, three cows and a host of dogs and cats. April evacuated, along with the goats, around May 1 to her childhood home, where her mother still lives in Santa Fe. Kevin stayed behind to help neighbors—he’s got a powerful generator, so he was able to offer fresh water, hot showers and more to the people he’s shared space with for the two years since the couple relocated to New Mexico from Northern California.

Kevin offers a clear, sharp assessment of who he believes should pay to rebuild what’s been lost.

“The federal government started this fire, and they should take 100% responsibility for fixing what’s left to be fixed,” he tells SFR.

His wife has strong opinions on government conservation tactics, too.

“With prescribed burns at this time of year and back-burning?” she says. “Stop doing it. It doesn’t work. They act like God. Let the locals take care of this land.”

Romero and his son, Emilio, haven’t lost their boisterous sense of humor since the fire took so much from their community. But upon seeing the husk of a neighbor’s home, one whose fields they cut in previous years, they fall quiet.

Romero doesn’t expect the forests to grow back in his lifetime.

“But maybe in my grandkids’ lives,” he says.

READ MORE >> Close to Home: With Pecos on the edge of evacuations, the fire isn’t expected to continue its push toward Santa Fe

READ MORE >> Super Fire: Northern New Mexico’s huge blaze continues to grow while another in the south is heating up fast

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