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One month in, New Mexico’s largest-ever fire fuels anger and despair

The blaze, part of which began as a prescribed burn, has displaced thousands and scorched breathtaking landscapes

A firefighter works on putting out part of a wildfire May 13, 2022, north of Mora, N.M. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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GUADALUPITA, N.M. — The evergreen slope behind Patrick Griego’s house and sawmill — 400 acres that belonged to his father and grandfather before him — was blackened now, the firewood he harvests and the forest floor where his cattle graze lost to flames two days earlier. The logger’s home was intact but had been without power for more than two weeks.

Yet although his property stood squarely in an evacuation zone, Griego was staying put, as he had since the start. More than 2,000 firefighters were battling the massive Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire that had raged through northern New Mexico since early April, but Griego trusted only himself to protect his home and animals.

“I don’t have nothing to log no more,” Griego, 62, said, walking Friday through the eerie haze enveloping his land. “I have nothing to sell since this fire.”

Despair and frustration are simmering throughout this rural, low-income area as the megafire, which Monday became New Mexico’s largest ever and is now at more than 299,000 acres, continues to rip through parched forests with no end in sight. The blaze has displaced thousands of people for more than a month, destroyed hundreds of structures, and scorched breathtaking landscapes and properties passed down through generations.

New Mexico blaze is now largest wildfire in state history

As the fire progressed, residents faced a wrenching choice — stay or go. Many who evacuated are hanging on by a thread, credit cards maxed-out on hotel rooms. Thousands of others have defied evacuation orders to defend land and animals that represent all they own, getting by on the limited supplies that make it past roadblocks — and puzzling over firefighting efforts some believe caused the conflagration and are now unable to tame it.

“They’re traumatized. They are in fear. There is profound anger swelling up to the surface, and confusion,” said state Rep. Roger Montoya (D), who represents the area.

The 467-square-mile blaze is being fought by an “understaffed body of firefighters, and with the sheer scale of acreage that is burning, they are deploying teams to the really hot spots,” Montoya said. But, he added, that has left some of his constituents feeling they are “watching the forest burn, and there’s no one attending it.”

Their frustration is partly fueled by unconfirmed suspicions that a prescribed burn started April 6 by the U.S. Forest Service — a common and, experts say, critically important wildfire-prevention practice — triggered the enormous conflagration. That prescribed fire was supposed to burn only about 1,200 acres. But it flamed out of control and became the Hermits Peak Fire. The Hermits Peak Fire then combined with the Calf Canyon Fire, whose origin the Forest Service says is under investigation.

“In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires,” Forest Service spokesman E. Wade Muehlhof said by email Monday, adding that the burn will be subject to a “comprehensive” review. “It is imperative that we learn from these experiences.”

Although the role of the prescribed burn in the current megafire is unclear, it has spurred outrage among New Mexico political leaders. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has asked the Forest Service to change its protocols for such burns and called on the federal government to cover all costs associated with response and recovery for the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire, citing “the U.S. Forest Service’s culpability for the prescribed burn.”

In a letter this month to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) cited the region’s dry winter, prolonged drought and warm, windy spring, saying that “I, and many in the local communities, were shocked that the Forest Service would perform a prescribed burn during these conditions.” New Mexico’s state Republican leadership, meanwhile, has called for a state-led investigation.

Inside the fire zone, many residents echoed those concerns.

“It’s all the same burn,” posited Joseph Griego, director of the Head Start program in the 800-person town of Mora, who since April has with his brother led a volunteer-run food distribution center for those who have not evacuated. “I can’t say why they do what they do, or how they do it, or what their formulas are, but we know that spring is an unpredictable time. It rains, it snows here. It’s windy, it’s not. It’s windy, it’s not.”

Prescribed burns are controlled, intentional fires meant to clear vegetation and reduce the risk of disastrous wildfires, and experts say they rarely go awry. When considering a prescribed fire, authorities rely on models that take into account temperature, humidity, fuel moisture, wind speed and direction, said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former wildland firefighter and co-founder of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Wind in particular tends to be a wild card, he said.

“It’s very often that when these prescribed fires burn beyond their plan, it’s because there was a change in the wind, in wind speed or wind direction,” he said. “It’s extremely rare that it’s a matter of negligence.”

But climate change has complicated decisions about when to use prescribed burns. Across the drought-stricken West, it is more difficult to find days with ideal conditions for such managed burning, said John Kupfer, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina who has written on the topic.

Kupfer described those days as a “‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ kind of situation: not too hot, not too cold; not too wet, not too dry; not too windy but still windy enough to carry fires.”

The memory of another wind-driven, springtime prescribed burn that went horribly wrong still lingers in northern New Mexico. In 2000, a National Park Service controlled burn turned into the Cerro Grande Fire, which torched more than 47,000 acres, destroyed 235 homes in Los Alamos, prompted multiple investigations and influenced federal agencies’ approach to forest management.

Tom Ribe, the Santa Fe-based author of a book about the Cerro Grande Fire, said he thinks it is highly unlikely the Hermit’s Peak Fire ignited the Calf Canyon Fire. Embers would have had to travel in the opposite direction of winds that day, he said.

Even so, “it was an error in judgment on the part of the Forest Service to do this burning now,” Ribe said. “It would have been better done in the fall, after we have our summer rains and there’s a window between summer rain and winter snow.”

As the disaster wears on, discontent is also simmering over another method of fighting fire with fire — backburning, or controlled fires started during an active conflagration, which firefighters use to deprive an inferno of fuel in its path. They are crucial in an enormous event such as this one, Ribe said, where “humans have no way to stop a fire with this intensity except to get well ahead of it.”

Patrick Griego, who is a distant cousin of the Head Start director, said the fire above his house last Wednesday was a backburn. He, the local volunteer fire chief and another person present said federal firefighters told them that to prevent the approaching wildfire from racing down Griego’s side of the mountain, they would burn slowly from the top of the ridge in the direction of his home, which Griego said he was “fine with.”

But after a drone dropped five fire-igniting “bombs” at the top of the ridge, they said, flames rapidly spread downhill. Griego said they were stopped only by a fuel break, known as a dozer line, just behind Griego’s house, which his cousin had made with a small bulldozer just that day.

“From up on the ridge up there, in 10 minutes, it got here,” Griego said, standing on the dozer line. He estimated that about seven local and 20 nonlocal firefighters quickly responded to the blaze on his property.

Montoya said he fields questions from constituents for “32 hours a day” — about basic needs but also about how the fire is being managed, why electricity and water are still out in some communities, and even theories about the fire being intentionally allowed to expand.

“From their perspective, the firefighters are not doing enough. Their lands are being backburned, and they don’t understand why that is the method when we should be working together,” to suppress flames, Montoya said, adding: “When people are traumatized at this level for this long, all sorts of symptoms will emerge.”

Outside the food distribution center in Mora, about 14 miles south of Griego’s land, tiny bits of ash floated through smoky air. Inside, volunteers stuffed bags and boxes with Raisin Bran, tuna, beans, squash, napkins and other essentials. They would be distributed to fire departments around the area, where residents could pick them up.

One volunteer, Raelouann Chavez, said her house had been without power for two weeks. Her 6- and 9-year-old children, who spent much of the pandemic out of the classroom, were dismissed again as the fire first approached April 22. Online learning began last week, but Chavez said few children are logging on because Internet access is spotty — or because their lives have been upended.

“I tell them, ‘Play what you can during the day, when you have light,’” she said of her children. “These kids can’t catch a break.”

Rachel Rogers, another volunteer, said she evacuated from her house for 19 days but eventually grew desperate to get back to the town where she grew up. The food services director for the Mora school district, Rogers said she was able to get past roadblocks by arguing that she needed to tend to spoiling food in district refrigerators.

“It’s just been a nightmare that doesn’t end,” Rogers said. “It’s like a Tasmanian devil that’s going all around us, just hitting fire in every little spot. We’re surrounded by fire.”

Up Highway 434, one side of which was still smoldering, Guadalupita Fire Department Chief Isaac Herrera stood outside his station, across the road from Griego’s house. He said he felt frustrated by what he saw as poor communication with out-of-state firefighters and aggressive backburns, not to mention worried about a long recovery ahead.

But at least, Herrera said, the flames had raced through his area without loss of human life.

“Everything has pretty much already been burnt, so it’s a relief that my community is safe,” said Herrera, who lost two horses in the fire, which also scorched land he owns. “We’ve all lost, some more than others. But we’ve all lost.”

Joshua Partlow and Kasha Patel contributed to this report.