© Reuters. Smoke blankets the view as authorities battle the nearby Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfires in Las Vegas, New Mexico, U.S. May 2, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt/File Photo
By Andrew Hay
LAS VEGAS, N.M. (Reuters) – Daniel Encinias stands next to his camping trailer in a New Mexico evacuation area and says he will rebuild his home torched by the largest wildfire burning in the United States.
He just wants the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to pay for it. The USFS has confirmed that one of its controlled burns went out of control early last month and later merged with another fire to become the second largest blaze in state history at 160,104 acres (65,000 hectares).
He is among upwards of 10,000 evacuees from the fire that has torn through centuries-old villages in the Sangre de Cristo mountains 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Santa Fe and burned the house Encinias had built from the ground up.
“We’re displaced because of something that was done by forestry,” said Encinias, 55, using the term common in the area for the USFS. “All I say is fix what’s messed up ….”
Like other people camped nearby, an RV and truck is all Encinias has left. He has no home insurance. He is relying on help from his extended family and his community.
He, his wife, three children, four dogs and eight cats are crammed into the trailer at the Storrie Lake State Park where he plans to go ahead with his daughter’s high-school graduation party.
The fire has further strained relations with the U.S. government in villages that saw Spanish colonial land grants stolen by 19th century American speculators and subsistence use of ancestral forests restricted by the USFS.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday called on President Joe Biden to sign a disaster decree to compensate families and restore watersheds and forests.
“You have a federal government who is certainly partially to blame for the situation we are in,” Lujan Grisham said.
A spokeswoman for the USFS Santa Fe National Forest, where the fire started, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The second fire that the burn merged with is under investigation.
In the past, homeowners have sued government agencies for controlled burns that went wrong. It also is common for people who have lost homes to receive payouts through emergency funds.
The fire in one of the poorest U.S. states is raging in two counties where household incomes are half the national average. Many of the lost homes are trailers on family land next to older adobe mud-brick homes, said Paula Garcia, who heads a state irrigation association.
At a Tuesday fire briefing, Las Vegas, New Mexico, Mayor Louie Trujillo bristled at officials’ description of burned houses as “structures” and said firefighters were defending a centuries-old “herencia” or inheritance.
“That land is spiritual, those houses are spiritual, it’s sacred land,” Trujillo said. The blaze threatens Trujillo’s historic city of 14,000 as well as villages over 30 miles north.
Back at the state park, Michael Salazar says he fled with his truck and trailer from a fire that destroyed 10 of 11 homes in his Tierra Monte area. He linked the destruction to the controlled burn.
“I just hope the government stands up and says, ‘Yes we do these things for a reason, they do get out of control, and we are going to try to help you,'” said Salazar, 55, as firefighting helicopters hovered over the nearby lake to fill up with water.