United States: Popular rage blazes in New Mexico against failed government fire management

Forest fire
The Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire became the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. Image: Pixabay/Pexels

Fires swept through large rural areas of New Mexico in April and May, destroying farms, ranches, homesteads, watersheds and vast stretches of mountain forest.

The northern New Mexico cities of Las Vegas and Taos and the town of Angel Fire were threatened by the fires, which ruined treasured, scenic hiking and camping regions not far from Santa Fe. Rural communities, including much of the agricultural Mora Valley, were devastated. Fears now persist that the monsoon rains which began in late June may cause further devastation through uncontrolled flooding of de-forested slopes and valleys in the wake of the fires.

I love my adopted home-state, where I have lived for the past 26 years, but this high-desert “Land of Enchantment” is in many ways a troubled land. These sometimes-hidden troubles have risen to dramatic visibility this year.

One of the poorest states in the United States, New Mexico, like most of the country’s west and southwest, has suffered from years of extreme drought and recurrent wildfires. This was forecast by New Mexican author and conservationist William deBuys in his sadly-prescient 2011 book, A Great Aridness.

Additionally, long-standing grievances over land ownership and water use rights date back to the brutal 1840s US military invasion and seizure of the province of Nuevo Mexico from the Republic of Mexico. Subsequent corrupt and racist shady dealings by political and economic elites in New Mexico Territory salted the wounds.

The Hispanic and Indigenous majority of New Mexico’s population was long seen by US authorities as a threat to white control. Statehood was not granted until 1912, after considerable immigration into the region by whites from Texas, Oklahoma and other states. Indigenous tribal New Mexicans were not allowed to vote until 1924. Immigration issues, including refugee aid and settlement, remain controversial, politically-charged topics.

Distrust of both state and federal governments is deeply seated among many New Mexicans.

The fact that the US Forest Service (USFS) set the blazes that became the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history has only aggravated that distrust, to the point of open hostility and popular rage.

Federal forest-management crews lit a small “prescribed back-burn” (intended to eliminate dry brush and thus reduce fire-risks) in the state’s rugged northern mountains on April 6, recklessly ignoring the well-known fact that April is always a very windy month. The winds soon whipped that fire beyond its boundaries and into the path of another federally-set and already out-of-control “prescribed” blaze.

The resultant Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire became the largest wildfire in the state’s history. More than 137,593 hectares (340,000 acres) and hundreds of homes burned in and around the Mora Valley region, where Hispanic ranchers and farmers had been settled for centuries. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes and many remain displaced. Livestock and wild animals were displaced and killed.

The New York Times labeled April’s blunder “one of the US Forest Service’s most destructive mistakes in decades”. In late June, a USFS internal investigation resulted in a public admission of mistakes and culpability. However, USFS officials — and some environmentalists — have continued to defend prescribed burns as a necessary tactic in preventing extreme fires and in pursuit of healthier forests. Such federal back-burns have now been prohibited nationally for at least 90 days.

More than 3000 courageous, federally-employed, but poorly paid firefighters were deployed to battle the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak blaze and other forest fires which broke out across the state.

Daily social media video reports by firefighting crews, including informative, witty presentations by meteorologist and artist Bladen Breitreiter, alerted New Mexicans to the fires’ progress and containment efforts.

President Joe Biden, prompted by New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, declared a state of disaster. Biden even flew there to demonstrate his concern and promise ongoing assistance.

Though no one doubts the dedication, bravery and heroic persistence of USFS firefighters, there are rumours — despite USFS denials — among many less affluent northern New Mexicans that more attention may have been directed towards protecting upscale vacation homes and ski resorts than to the less elegant properties of working folks. There are suspicions among some wary mountain folks that greedy land speculators may exploit the situation.

Only the recent early onset of much-hoped-for monsoon rains has brought the fires under control and limited their spread. Yet, the damage done is tremendous, with anticipated floods in the burned lands likely to add to the destruction. Recovery is expected to take years. Many displaced and newly-impoverished rural working-class New Mexicans face the agony of disruption to their formerly independent lives. They are cut off from their hard-won livelihoods as they wait for government emergency aid, insurance payments and delayed but sadly limited, compensation. It is not surprising that many blame the federal government for their woes.

One victim of USFS’ blunders, Meg Sandoval, told the NYT on June 21: “I hope those responsible for this catastrophic failure are not sleeping at night.”

Sandoval’s family settled in the region in the 1840s. She is now living in the shell of a camper after her home was destroyed by the fire. “They ruined the lives of thousands of people,” she said.

“It wiped us out,” said Tierra Monte resident Pola Lopez, in an interview with Alicia Inez Guzmán for Searchlight New Mexico. The fire destroyed nearly 65 hectares (160 acres) of her family’s ancestral land.

Guzmán wrote: “Like so many in the devastation zone, she [Lopez] squarely places the blame on the US Forest Service (USFS), not only for starting a prescribed burn in the windy month of April — when gusts reached 70 miles per hour [112 kmh] — but for a century of conflict with rural communities.

“Known locally as La Floresta, the USFS is often seen as a feudal lord, a faraway government entity that has accumulated vast holdings with little idea of how to properly steward them or enough funds to do the job.

“The community’s fury runs almost too deep for words.”

Guzmán concluded from her many interviews with people in the fire zone: “The USFS has a history, locals argue, of mismanaging the forest. In particular, they say the agency has limited or prohibited people from the long-held tradition of collecting firewood and other timber, the kind of maintenance the forest needed. If they had been able to tend to it the way they had for generations, they believe the conflagration would have been far less devastating.”

Rural New Mexico’s recovery will be a very difficult, prolonged and litigious process. A large class-action lawsuit against the USFS is being assembled on behalf of fire victims.

Although the monsoon rains have begun to quench the flames, it will be quite some time before tempers and justified popular rage cools down.