Northern NM voters weigh officials’ disaster response and stance on climate change

In this election cycle, Mora County residents question whether enough help from state and feds will come

By: - September 26, 2022 5:00 am

The sun sets behind election signs on Highway 518 east of Mora County on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

While people in Mora County continue to recuperate from the state’s largest wildfire and ongoing floods, the General Election looms. Officials’ disaster-recovery efforts are fresh on people’s minds as early voting starts up in October.

After the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire tore through northern New Mexico, candidates’ positions on the environment and how to secure aid for the region are key.

A warming atmosphere

The massive wildfire that burned essentially in Dr. Fiona Sinclair’s backyard is just one example, they said, of the urgency and significance of global warming — and the devastation that can happen when officials ignore it.

Learning from NM mistakes, Forest Service to better heed drought factor before burns

Sinclair said although the U.S. Forest Service started the two prescribed burns that became the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, climate change is really what caused it. They said the feds were ignoring the dire conditions when they started the fires, resulting in disaster.

“Really, at the government level, they should be aware of climate change, and that they lit a fire in the spring during an unprecedented drought is just kind of shocking,” they said.

But people aren’t talking about it enough or connecting the northern fire to global warming and its impacts, Sinclair said.

Climate change has contributed to rising temperatures in the southwest for decades, leading to the historic drought that the region is experiencing. And with less water available, wildfires are a bigger risk, likely to burn more often and hotter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The conversation needs to start happening in relationship to this fire, because it’s not,” Sinclair said. “And the problem is is there’s a lot of ignorance in northern New Mexico, a lot of ignorance around climate.”

Trees burned by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire stand dead in Mora County on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

The globe is getting warmer, and it needs to be addressed by state and federal leaders,  they said. In New Mexico, at least Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is talking about climate change, Sinclair added, as opposed to silence from her Republican opponent, former meteorologist Mark Ronchetti.

Not everyone believes human-caused climate change is actually happening, though, despite scientific evidence backing it up. Collins Lake Ranch owner Steve Smaby said he can understand why people are skeptical.

“It’s the type of thing that you don’t see,” Smaby said. “It’s not like when you go to McDonald’s and you order a hamburger: ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s $11 now versus $10.’ And you see that immediately, versus: ‘Oh, today is one-tenth of a degree hotter than what it would have been otherwise.’”

But it’s something that needs to be taken seriously, Smaby said. He said he thinks more people are starting to believe it’s real, which will affect their votes in the coming election.

Steve Smaby looks around at charred trees at Collins Lake Ranch on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

But no matter who comes into office, Sinclair said, they won’t do enough. Even Lujan Grisham will keep drilling for oil and gas, they said, in order to make money for the state. The oil and gas industry usually generates over $2 billion annually for New Mexico, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. It makes up around 25% to 30% of the state’s general fund most years.

The industry contributes hugely to New Mexico’s outsized carbon emissions, though. It generated 60 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions in 2018, over half of the state’s total emissions, according to the N.M. Climate Change Task Force. The 2020 report said New Mexico more than doubles the national average of greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

“For me, we’re totally screwed. There’s no hope at this point,” Sinclair said.

One of their friends, Jordan Minkin, said although the Democrats are trying to find solutions to climate issues through green policies and the Republicans are trying to boost oil and gas extraction to get out of an energy crisis, neither party seems to have the answer.

“For me, the problem is none of them protect nature or the wilderness just as it is,” Minkin said. “We have a way of commodifying it.”

Northern NM residents piece together rough housing solutions when FEMA aid doesn’t come

How officials handled relief, recovery

Another issue that stands out for many is how elected officials handled wildfire response and recovery, and whether they did enough to help people — if they did anything at all.

Contractor Jake Lovato criticized the lack of real help for Mora County, one of the poorest in New Mexico. He said the wealthier Los Alamos County that was hit by the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 got much better treatment from the federal government than the people of Mora 22 years later.

“I’m seeing poor people are not getting any help,” Lovato said.

There’s been a lack of help for individuals under Lujan Grisham’s purview, he said, and he thinks Ronchetti would better prioritize getting people aid. Both have been calling for the federal government to clean up destruction from the fire.

Minkin said a lot of state and federal agencies are coming into the county and holding meetings for aid, but it feels like there’s not enough money coming down or disaster protections for individuals. He pointed to the many driveways that are washed out from flooding and the debris that’s been building up on private land for months in Mora County.

“As far as government goes on a local, state and federal level, it fell apart,” Minkin said. “I think mostly lip service is given to the community.”

Finding the time to vote

Veronica Serna is running for reelection as Mora County Commissioner. But she doesn’t know if people will even have the time to vote. Many are so busy trying to recover, she said, they may be less likely to head to the polls.

“We’re hoping they do,” Serna said. “But you know what? Their life comes first, their livelihood. So it’s understandable.”

Lovato’s wife Anita is trying to go through all of the different state and federal aid applications to find recovery help for their charred land, and voiced frustration at how muddled the whole process is. She said state and federal government organizations and officials need to make getting help less difficult.

“I’d express to them: help the people, and make it easy for them,” she said.

On a local level, a few officials stood out positively. Minkin said he thought Undersheriff Americk Padilla had good communication and evacuation protocols during the disaster, and Sinclair said Serna was the only commissioner that stuck around to do disaster recovery work.

But overall, many said there aren’t enough officials to cover all of Mora County, and the officials they do have don’t wield enough power to make a difference. A lot of the residents are still looking to the state or feds for more substantial help, even if they’re not feeling hopeful about it.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.