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As northern New Mexico burns, fears grow for its distinctive culture

Across Mora County and other parts of northern New Mexico, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has destroyed structures, vehicles and broad swaths of forest
Alice Fordham
Across Mora County and other parts of northern New Mexico, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has destroyed structures, vehicles and broad swaths of forest

The little town of Mora, nestled in a green river valley between forested mountains, is usually a serene place. But with the area hit hard by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, the high school has become a distribution center where local volunteers give out donated food, water and animal feed.

Volunteers chatter as residents drive up for supplies. "There's some baked beans - or you want pinto?," says one. "They gotta be pinto beans," comes the reply and a search through bags of canned goods resumes until the right beans are found.

In this rural area, New Mexico's largest-ever fire has destroyed homes and crops. Power and water are still mostly out. Although the area was in an evacuation zone, anecdotally people say maybe a quarter of about 4,500 residents of the county stayed to feed livestock and fight spot fires on their property.

People are helping each other as they can. "Your dad stopped by my house, gave me a couple bales of hay," one man tells a volunteer.

Nobody died. But the fire burned broad swaths of private land and of the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests. Some fear the fire will catalyze a change in a way of life that has endured for centuries, and in which beloved and unique traditions are embedded.

"This isn't just now, this is for generations and generations to come," said Valerie Benjamin, who usually works with Head Start and is currently a volunteer. "It is a way of life. A lot of people make their living off our lands, from raising cattle to firewood products."

Her husband is a logger, one of many with permits to collect wood used for heating, for traditional architecture and for sale. Other people have permits to graze livestock on high pasture in summer, land that is in many cases now burned.

"People are going to lose a lot, or have lost a lot," said Benjamin. She wept as she said that her children would never see the landscape as it was. "I'm hoping that their kids and their kids' kids will be able to - it'll come back the way it used to be."

Joseph Griego, usually an educator working with Head Start, is coordinating a distribution center for donations in Mora
Alice Fordham
Joseph Griego, usually an educator working with Head Start, is coordinating a distribution center for donations in Mora

All the volunteers at the school in Mora trace their families' ownership of land in the area back multiple generations, in some cases to land grants allocated in the early 1800s. In this community and others like it, many connect their ancestry back to the Spanish conquest in the late 16th century and to the indigenous people of the area.

As well as making a living from forestry and agriculture, they take pride in traditions like maintaining the Spanish-style ditches called acequias for irrigation. State Representative Roger Montoya says even the Spanish spoken here is influenced by old dialects and indigenous languages.

"It was a beautiful mixture that is very unique worldwide," he said. "And it's emblematic of the kind of isolation that these communities have maintained in a certain way even today. They are insular, they are quite happy. They are rich culturally and historically."

But they are not rich monetarily. The poverty rate is about 20%. And although a major disaster has been declared and people are being encouraged to apply for assistance from FEMA, the maximum award for damaged property is only $39,400, according to officials who spoke at a briefing this week.

When that is coupled with the loss of livelihood from forest destruction, Montoya fears people will leave.

"What they're facing is unprecedented decimation of every link they have to the land, the people, the water, the animals that they have depended on for hundreds of years," he said. "So it's an interruption that is catastrophic, and heartbreaking."

The fire already encompasses about 475 square miles and is still growing. Incident Commander Nickie Johnny, who coordinates fighting the eastern part of the fire and is working on overall strategy, says it could still burn much more of northern New Mexico.

"New Mexico hasn't seen a fire of this kind of size and this kind of fuel type and this fire has the potential to grow twice, maybe three times its size," she told KUNM.

Johnny is working on strategies that see the fire moving up to the border with Colorado. How likely that is, is as yet undetermined.

"It would be based on what kind of weather we have, and how soon we have a season-ending event, which I hear in New Mexico is one inch of rain over a course of three days," she said.

And it may not be the last such fire. Ecologists say that a century of fire suppression has left forests full of flammable vegetation, while a changed climate, with hotter, drier weather in the Southwest, has extended the annual fire season.

In the thick of the disaster, it can be a challenge to think about the future.

"It's hard to grasp the change that will happen in this community," said Joseph Griego, an educator who is coordinating the distribution center in Mora.

Recently, Griego was speaking to a friend who had lived off the land here. "He looks at the mountains, and he says, you know, 'What am I to do, moving forward? Everything that I need is gone.'"

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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