People in the disaster zone have words for Biden ahead of his NM visit

As a historic wildfire lit by US Forest Service continues to burn, we asked: What would you say to the president?

By: , , , and - Friday June 10, 2022 5:00 am

People in the disaster zone have words for Biden ahead of his NM visit

As a historic wildfire lit by US Forest Service continues to burn, we asked: What would you say to the president?

By: , , , and - 5:00 am

The state flag on former wildland firefighter John Trujillo’s Monte Aplanado property (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The state flag on former wildland firefighter John Trujillo’s Monte Aplanado property (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Voters who may have lost homes or just returned to scorched properties in northern New Mexico went to the polls anyway this week to cast ballots for the next round of local leaders who will help shape the rebuilding process. 

As they did, Source New Mexico reporters spread out up north and stayed most of the week to hear from communities still reeling from a wildfire, the largest in the state’s recorded history. They talked to folks about the statewide primary election in a region where campaigns had for weeks morphed into emergency food distribution efforts. 

Source NM reporters also heard from folks about FEMA’s response so far.

Naomi Montoya smiles while standing in the FEMA disaster recovery center parking lot on Tuesday. Montoya incurred hotel and food expenses after evacuating from her home due to the fire, and she said she was disappointed to not be able to get reimbursed by FEMA. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

And they asked every person they spoke with what they would say to President Joe Biden, who’s heading to Santa Fe on Saturday for a briefing on several fires charring New Mexico, the largest of which was ignited by the U.S. Forest Service as prescribed burns, according to investigators.

Here are their words for the president:

Naomi Montoya, an evacuee, said Biden should go on a tour led by the locals. “It’s better because we’re going to show him where we’re coming from. We’re the people who live here, and who are really impacted. … We don’t live in the national parks or the national forests. We live in our backyard where we can’t get wood anymore. And we can’t go camping or hiking or bury our parents or whatever we do in our mountain.”

Greg Elbring is a retired Sandia National Laboratory manager who lives with his husband Tobias Lovato on his family’s ranch in Mora. Elbring said it’s one thing for Biden to fly over the burn scar to see the extent of the fire, because it’s huge, and it would show him how much area is really impacted.

But he said he also hopes that Biden gets on the ground to see up close some of the places devastated by the fire, like burned homes and other damaged property.

“And to get a feel for what this community is like, because this community is unique as far as culture, as far as poverty, all those kinds of things that make it a little bit different than, say, Houston during the hurricane, or something like that,” he said.

“I don’t have a lot of hope that he will actually be able to come and set boots on the ground here in Mora,” Elbring said.

Given the chance, he would ask Biden why FEMA is so hard to deal with.

“We’ve had a lot of people have trouble with getting through the bureaucracy of FEMA, and trying to navigate that system, and a lot of people are very unhappy about that.”

Even though the help is here, it’s a matter of just how difficult it is to get that help, Elbring said, especially for elderly people and those who aren’t as internet savvy.

John Montano said he would tell Biden that getting assistance shouldn’t be so hard. “I would say, Try to make it easier for people to apply for assistance. There’s a lot of people. It was so busy that they started turning people away. There was just so many people, they couldn’t really handle the load. So there’s a lot of people out there that went for help and couldn’t get it.”

Destroyed property on a backroad to Morphy Lake (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna said that the situation is dire when it comes to funding and resources. “People are desperate for assistance. Mora is a poor community. We have very limited resources. We need government help to move forward,” she said. “All the natural resources that our community has thrived on are all gone. So I have no idea how you can fix that, but we need to do whatever we can to help rehab and make that better for the people.”

She also had some thoughts on what’s gone wrong with managing the forest. “I think one of the problems has been that there has not been enough funding in the forest, both federal, state and private. And I think that programs need to be available for people to not only thin the forest, but another grant to send a team to go clean out. Because a lot of times people that are sent out to the forests will take with them the larger logs, and they leave a lot of the branches and stuff behind. So if another team could go in and clean out all that brush, because that turns into fuel. So there needs to be another way to address this problem. And we cannot ever let our forests get as thick as they have been again.”

Mora resident Leroy Alcon Jr. agreed that forest management has been lacking. “You know, if the monies would have been here for the people, it would allow the local people that have been doing this for generations and generations to manage forests.”

Standing on the side of State Road 518 overlooking part of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar, outgoing state Rep. Roger Montoya said as soon as next week, erosion could become an immediate concern. “These ash-laden hills are gonna flow downstream, they’re gonna clog the acequias, the ojitos, the water sources in Chacon,” he said. The nearby community of Buena Vista is drilling a new well into a deeper aquifer, he said, out of absolute necessity.

“It would be incredibly important if the president could be here in Mora, in the place so critically, directly affected in a unique way by the fire, for him to understand the true texture and tone of what people are facing,” Montoya said.

He pointed to the fact that many families hit by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire have owned their land for many generations, often without a formal deed. “Who holds the deed when your family has lived there 250 years?” Montoya asked. “Those kinds of situational details are critically important for the president to understand the impact of this fire on Mora in particular.”

Looking to the Mora Valley on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Joseph Sanchez beat Montoya in this week’s primary and will face Republican Jerald Steve McFall in the general.

Sanchez said he hopes Biden’s message when he visits is: “We will take care of you.”

“I want him to say that he is going to take care of these people no matter if this is going to be a process that’s going to take several years, he’s gonna bridge the gap and make sure they’re taken care of until they get their homes back.”

Given the chance to ask Biden anything, Sanchez said he would ask why aid for victims can’t be expedited.

“They need to get boots on the ground, find out where everybody’s at with their own situations,” Sanchez said. “They need to provide the manpower to process these people. They can’t tell ‘em, ‘Call this number,’ and not answer, and ‘Sorry, call again tomorrow.’ They need to get 100 people over there processing claims and get this taken care of.”

Tara Bartlett in Holman, N.M., said she would ask the president: “Why there isn’t more help? I mean, they offer a certain amount of help. But in reality, it’s not the help that we need… Don’t get me wrong, any little bit helps. But I feel like there should be more help for us … And I feel like he should be at least in Las Vegas. I don’t feel like Santa Fe is the place to go for the fact that Santa Fe didn’t get impacted.”

This is a poor community at the end of the day, she said. “A lot of people used their savings to evacuate. So how are they going to have money to go to see him or to go hear him talk? I don’t even know. It should be public, because we’re the ones impacted. So we should be able to at least hear it and be able to ask questions.” 

One side of the acequia on the road to Morphy Lake is burned, while the other side sees new growth on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

If John Trujillo, a resident of Monte Aplanado, were in the room with Biden, he would tell him to “help the poor people, the ones that lost their homes. Give them money to build their homes. There’s a lot of poor people here. A lot. We all make a living. We do what we have to do. We survive.” But there are people who don’t have insurance, he explained. “I don’t have it for my house. I can’t afford it. I can’t afford it.”

A former wildland firefighter, Trujillo would also tell Biden to activate forest restoration services now. Not tomorrow, Right now. He said after he finished fighting on the frontline of the Cerro Grande Fire 22 years ago, he was sent right back to work on forest restoration efforts. 

“They spent millions of dollars. They planted seeds. They did what was called flood protection … I did that for three months. We stood there doing rehab. I hope they would maybe do some rehab here, you know, on some of our real burnt areas. There’s certain areas that would survive, that would be OK after a few years because they get rebuilt. That’s gonna take 10 years, 15 years to get any vegetation.”

Dr. Fiona Sinclair stands in front of her truck in the parking lot of the FEMA disaster recovery center in Mora on Tuesday. She lost her outdoor outfitting business and is warning all who will listen about the potential for disastrous floods in the fire scar. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

Dr. Fiona Sinclair, a biologist and Cleveland, N.M. resident who lost her business, said she would tell the president to mitigate the damage that’s been done with billions of dollars “and compensate us for our loss. Because I’ve lost my entire life actually, and it will never be the same. … I don’t want to move at all. I don’t want to lose my house. I could live with this, but they need to mitigate … and just get out there and start planting trees and throw billions. This is an entire wilderness they’ve destroyed.”

Harold Dineen is a former U.S. Soil Conservation officer and resident of Guadalupita, a short drive from Mora. He and his wife Marcella were in Albuquerque when the blaze reached their property, burning trees and grass just feet away from their home. Their property is about 40 acres, and nearly all of it is woodland, and a lot of it is sloped, he said.

If Dineen could ask Biden anything, it would be: “Where’s the money?”

“Because it’s gonna cost,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think we’ll get all volunteers to walk and get all dirty cutting black trees. You’re gonna have to reimburse ‘em with something.”

With the size of the fire and the places it reached, stopping erosion as much as possible is going to be “be a big thing, and it’s not gonna be easy” Dineen said.

A fire ecologist and New Mexico Highlands University associate professor, Blanca Céspedes watched the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire burn just beyond her home in Las Vegas, N.M., understanding the conditions that can allow wildfires to get out of control but unable to change the fire management policies that led to this.

With President Biden’s visit to New Mexico, Céspedes said she would inquire about the lack of active fire management going on in the nation that has created mistrust for the prescribed burn tool. She said legislation is needed that considers fire in a serious way, prioritizing safety and adaptation to climate change conditions to reduce the number of fires escaping.

She brought up the need to invest in education about fire, an essential tool to manage wildfires in her mind, to get rid of misinformation and action based in fear and reactiveness. Policies should be based in the best science available, she added.

And for the communities who have lost their homes, businesses and so much more, Céspedes would ask Biden to make concrete policies that would ensure communities affected by the wildfire have financial help quickly.

“People right now don’t have anything and they need to reconstruct,” Céspedes said, “and they need to rehabilitate their houses and their properties as soon as possible.” 

Kristy Wolf stands on her family property. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Kristy Wolf stayed inside the evacuation zone as long as she could. The moment she left on May 1, the fire had peaked the ridgeline behind her home and former business, the Mora Inn. 

When she left, all the meat in her home spoiled because the power was shut off and she wasn’t there to turn on her generator. When she returned home, the rancid smell of spoiled meat filled her house. It’s a smell she’s unsure exactly how to get out of the house. 

She said she doesn’t know if FEMA can help with the costs to potentially replace walls or carpets — or even for the loss of the food that would have lasted years or supplied many community taco dinners. She said an inspector estimated the cost to fully clean her home would be $30,000. 

“I don’t have $30,000 to clean my house … so of course they’re scaring you, and you don’t know which way to turn. What do I do? What do I do?”

Wolf said she’d tell President Biden about the struggle people are facing with so much uncertainty.

“So on top of the fact that you had to leave, on top of the fact that you see your valley completely destroyed and then you get traumatized with this on top of FEMA recovery. And what now? We get the rains, and we’re gonna get all the flooding. So now what do we do? … And none of us have the answers. You just get up in the morning and you go.”

Frances Muniz imagined talking to the president directly. “Hey Joe,” Muniz laughed. 

“I think he’s a regular guy, seems very approachable. I want to thank him for what he did in getting a disaster declaration quickly. It helped a lot of people that needed help.”

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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. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.

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