‘It’ll never be the same.’ Northern NM residents fly over burn scar to map damage themselves
Acequia steward keeps pushing for feds to repair irrigation channels and watersheds after minimal help so far
Mountaintops with a mix of new growth and dead trees burned by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire look over a valley in Mora County on Nov. 30, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Hundreds of miles of blackened, lifeless trees — vast stains on the land when viewed from above. Rivers and streams cutting their way through valleys and deadened forests. Even narrower waterways, acequias that New Mexicans rely on for their livelihood, scattered across the land, the water itself almost not even visible through the airplane’s window.
A dusting of white snow — maybe a flooding threat again, come spring.
This is the work of a wildfire so large that it left billions of dollars of destruction across hundreds of thousands of acres in northern New Mexico.
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The victims of the blaze have been begging the federal government — whose own employees ignited the flames — to restore the charred land and polluted water that many families have attended to and lived on for generations.
Gilbert Quintana is an acequia steward and president of the Mora County Land Grant Association. He set up a flight for residents of Mora and San Miguel Counties over the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar on Wednesday, Nov. 30, hoping to map out the injuries to their watersheds and acequias.
“We have our work cut out for us,” said Quintana (Genízaro Pueblo).
It’s been difficult for residents to actually see the whole of the damage, or to get ahold of charts or maps outlining what’s been lost since places are inaccessible due to flooding and torn up roads. People living in Mora have also said the feds won’t share the high-resolution images that they already have documenting the destruction.
Quintana said the goal is to get the state to push the feds to start down a firmer recovery path.
He reached out to EcoFlight, a nonprofit focused on environmental protection, to orchestrate the flight.
Pilot Bruce Gordon flew the residents in a small five-seater plane, drifting low and slow over the burn scar while recording and taking photos with Quintana guiding him.
“It’s a big fire,” Gordon said. “It’s a big area.”
Though the region is heavily altered, Quintana pointed out landmarks he easily recognized from the air after living in the area his entire life — the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Morphy Lake, the boundaries of Mora County.
Mountains and valleys were filled with the barren trees for miles with contrasting patches of bright snow scattered on burnt soil.
“It’s not going to be the same for irrigators, for hunters, for farmers,” he said.
Leafless trunks overtook entire cliffs, though on others, recently fallen orange leaves dotted fields with new, green growth.
“There’s a spot where it looks like they dropped a bomb on it,” Quintana said, pointing to a circle of earth devoid of any real color. It’s the outline of a spot where the U.S. Forest Service, fighting the blaze over months, set a smaller fire — a backburn — in order to remove fuels that if consumed would make the massive blaze even more difficult to control or extinguish.
And even from thousands of feet above, Quintana could spot the acequias, too. He pointed to the damaged irrigation channels and named the people who depend on each for their agriculture.
Eric Romero, a professor at New Mexico Highlands University, also came on the flight with expertise of the land. He explained how the big fire as well as the backburns raced through the forests in varying levels of intensity, leaving behind different levels of damage visible from the plane — from forests that stayed mostly the same to entire fields burnt nearly to a crisp.
“If you’re doing prescribed burns to fight a fire in 40 mile per hour winds, yeah, it gets away from you,” he said.
With the photos and footage from the flight, Quintana said he intends to chart the damage, then turn it over to the state legislators that represent the burned region — Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) and incoming Democratic Rep. Joseph Sanchez.
Quintana said he tried to get some lawmakers on the flight, but they couldn’t make it due to scheduling issues.
Much of the devastation affects whether residents can earn their living — often from farming and ranching, or even growing and selling Christmas trees. Quintana said he wants the legislators “to advocate on behalf of making sure that the federal government makes the people of these communities whole again.”
Frustration with FEMA
Congress approved $2.5 billion for victims of the fire, though that money isn’t being distributed yet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in charge of the funding, but Quintana said he’s not so sure those dollars will all actually reach all of the locals affected.
In general, there’s been a lot of community frustration with FEMA’s often slow or incorrect responses to fire victims trying to get aid. Quintana echoed that sentiment, saying the agency is handling the situation poorly.
President Joe Biden is also calling for another $2.9 billion for New Mexico fire victims, though the funding is part of a larger package and still hasn’t received congressional approval.
Romero added that the aerial footage and photos will allow for a better understanding of all the damage that’s been done, allowing people to visualize destruction in a way that they can’t from the ground.
This won’t be the only flight over the burn scar. Quintana said he’s planning another in April when warmer temperatures will make it safer to assess damage from the air.
Some peaks are already capped with snow. He said if it turns to liquid that rushes down the slopes as the seasons change again, “there goes that watershed.”
Quintana pointed to a slowly running creek below. “That looks like a helpless little creek right now,” he said. “It was rushing.”
Flooding in the burn scar already caused multiple deaths in 2022.
Damaged acequias need to get fixed
The fire forced ash, debris, silt and other materials into acequias, plugging the historic irrigation ditches that are essential to agricultural work.
“We’re farmers,” Quintana said. “We’ve been agriculturalists on these lands for years and years and years.”
The state and federal governments have been slow to help restore these essential waterways. Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, told Source New Mexico that acequias submitted applications by early November to get federal funding, despite roadblocks along the way.
Romero said there’s been a lack of official response because acequias are subdivisions of the state, similar to municipal levels of government, so higher government entities left it up to the locals to do their own advocacy for the channels.
New map shows damage status of 50+ acequias in the northern NM burn scar
To fix this mess, though, he said acequias and the government need to figure out a working relationship. “Historically,” he said, “it’s been a tenuous relationship.”
Quintana said fixing everything is going to take five or 10 years at least, and the federal government needs to stick around for that.
“If they’re not committed for the long haul, we’re going to be in the problem over and over and over again, every irrigation season,” he said.
Historic communities ignored
Many of the communities hit by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire have been in the area for centuries and understand the workings of the land and water intimately. But residents have repeatedly said that the federal agencies coming in for disaster recovery don’t listen to them.
Ralph Laumbach is a land grant heir. On the flight, he recounted Quintana trying to tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which way the water runs so they could effectively put up barriers against flooding. But, he said, they didn’t heed the advice of Quintana, the person who has lived there for his entire life.
And stories like that aren’t uncommon from residents.
“A lot of the recovery crews that went in there didn’t have any concept whatsoever of our water,” Laumbach said. “And so they kind of made a mess of things.”
Quintana said the land grant heirs are the “land and water protectors” — after Indigenous people on the land before them — but the federal government doesn’t really have an ear for their historical knowledge.
Quintana and Romero voiced frustration about the start of the disaster, too, when the U.S. Forest Service didn’t adequately survey land, weather and drought conditions in the state before lighting the prescribed burns that merged in April and went on to become the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history.
The pilot, Gordon, who hails from Colorado questioned how the flames could have jumped so far as he observed the hundreds of miles of dead trees, and Romero told him about the intense winds present when the prescribed burns were lit.
Gordon was shocked about the story of how the blaze got out of control, he said, and now the lifeless forests the fire left behind.
“It’ll never be the same,” Romero said.
Slower help for a poorer area
On the flight, Romero pointed to the Cerro Grande burn scar in the distance, another fire that the National Park Service ignited intentionally 22 years ago as a prescribed burn that also got out of control, tearing through Los Alamos County.
Officials and Mora residents have pointed out that help has been much slower to come to the community hit by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze decades later, and Romero said it’s partly because the area isn’t as wealthy.
And now, property values have dipped even further due to the wildfire destruction. Romero and Laumbach said land speculators have been coming in from out of state looking to buy up the cheaper property.
Romero called this “disaster capitalism,” when outsiders arrive seeking financial gain after a catastrophe like this.
“There’s an intentional appropriation of lands that is taking place, and they are taking advantage of not only low socio-economic status and limited resource availability, but now the devastation,” he said.
Flying back to the Las Vegas airport, the scenery of blackened, lifeless mountains and damaged centuries-old waterways were left in the distance. Everyone fell quiet.
This story was updated on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, at 9:30 a.m. to indicate the National Park Service ignited the controlled burn that went on to become the Cerro Grande Fire 22 years ago.
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