People remained in Mora despite warnings that fire could destroy their town, rep. says

Snow forecast offered hope as wildfire advanced

By: - April 25, 2022 4:45 am

New Mexico State Police hold the road closure on U.S. Highway 518 on Sunday, April 24 in the late afternoon. The location is a spot where people waited for relatives to leave the fire zone. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

ESPAÑOLA VALLEY — As the massive fires in Northern New Mexico burned through more acres and emitted huge plumes of smoke into the sky this weekend, some people refused to leave their land and their farms, pinning their hopes on coming stormclouds and a promise of some precipitation. 

Late Sunday, Northern New Mexicans forced to evacuate because of the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires were hoping the forecast for snow overnight was for real.

“If it happens, it happens. If not, then I don’t know,” said Cynthia Olguin, who left her home south of Mora to stay at a hotel on Pojoaque Pueblo.

Snow coming in from Colorado was forecasted to reach the fire overnight Sunday into Monday morning. This could help the town of Mora, where estimates indicated the flames could cover the town by noon on Monday, said New Mexico Rep. Roger Montoya (D-Velarde)

As many as 300 people chose not to leave Mora despite the danger, Montoya said — making a choice instead to remain in Mora even if the fire does take over the town. 

On Saturday, Montoya took one last trip into Mora to plea with holdouts that the need to leave is urgent.

He was speaking with people who have owned property in the region for generations and eventually benefited from land management after the U.S. conquest of the region. 

“That’s why it is so sad to see this happening here,” he said. “This is literally all we have. We fight for this land, and this is where we want to be. And that is what brought these men into tears.”

He also met with people at the lookout just outside the police barricade that closes traffic into Mora to anyone who does not have a residence or family in the area.

It’s a place with pristine views of mountains and water. The quiet oasis was disturbed by police sirens blocking U.S. Highway 518 into Mora County and lined with cars filled with people who left the town but were now waiting for the call from their relatives who would not leave, fire threat and all. 

Lily Quezados was in a silver pickup waiting at the line after crossing back and forth through the police checkpoint into Mora twice. 

“I got most of the animals and some of the farm equipment,” she said. “I’m still waiting for my dad. He doesn’t want to leave, so I’ll wait here until he calls me to pick him up.”

The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires merged during a weekend where winds picked up to historic speeds and spread blazes that were estimated to have burned more than 110,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest and private lands in the area as of Sunday.

Thousands from the Northern New Mexico villages of Chacon, Cleveland, Mora, La Cueva and other towns did evacuate to stay with relatives in other parts of the state, at a hotel nearby in Santa Fe or Albuquerque, or in shelters set up in Taos and Las Vegas.

Hotels from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo down south into Pojoaque and into Santa Fe were booked.

Every parking lot had trucks filled with people who were hoping their stay is brief but wondering if this could become an extended stay. 

“We’ll be here until it’s safe to go back home,” James Olguin said. He and his family are in a hotel a few hours from their home south of Mora.

Rep. Montoya started discussions with community leaders last week about the possibility that a fire that could take over the area in Northern New Mexico and force evacuations. He said the concern came from the severity of the drought conditions and a recent experience where his sister had to flee from her home in Boulder, Colorado due to the Marshall Fire that destroyed more than a thousand homes.

He can point toward some similarities — such as elevation and dry climates — between the fire that ravished suburbs in Boulder and the fires hitting communities in Northern New Mexico. 

But that’s where it ends. 

“Boulder is a community that is comparatively over-resourced. They’re affluent, it’s suburban. They have a lot of money, a university.” Montoya said. “In Mora these are farmers that have lived on the land for hundreds of years, and they really only have land, that way of life.”

Roger Montoya takes a call from a person looking for a place to stay on Sunday, April 24. Montoya created Moving Arts Española that turned into a space for people looking for help or drop donations. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The fires in New Mexico are in rural areas without fire-protection resources most common in towns and metropolitan areas. 

Namely, a fire department. 

All the small communities in the area in New Mexico that are facing wildfires rely on volunteer fire departments, so they wait for state and outside resources when major blazes spread.

The fires are often managed by federal agencies in the Southwest Area. State fire officials provide additional support.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.