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Las Vegas editor assesses impact so far of state’s largest wildfire

Yasmin Khan

Having now scorched over 487 square miles, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire is the largest wildfire in state history. It’s a combination of two blazes, one of which was started as a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service. Las Vegas Opticeditor Phil Scherer, who’s been on the ground in northeastern New Mexico since the fire sparked last month, spoke with KUNM’s Yasmin about what he’s seen and heard, and who’s shown up to pitch in.

PHIL SCHERER: The entire western United States has kind of stepped up and has all sent crews here. I know we have lots of federal firefighters that have been switching out every two weeks — the Type One Response Teams that are the most qualified to be containing these fires — all the different cities around the state. So, it's been kind of amazing to see the number of people who have stepped up to try to help our area. And it's even more impressive on the fire's end that we have all these people working on it, and yet we can't get it contained.

KUNM: So what are you seeing that have been the biggest challenges to containing this fire?

SCHERER: The Type One Response Team talked about how flammable the materials in the area are. And they said they rank it on a level of zero to 100, meaning out of 100 times that you would spark something on these fuels, how often would they turn into a fire? And they said that it was at 97. Everything this fire that is active is touching is going up immediately. They've had some success doing some ahead burning, where they're burning some of the materials before the fire gets there, and that is why it was able to stop from coming into the town of Las Vegas. But in those mountainous regions, you can't do that as effectively, and that's been one of the biggest challenges that we've seen.

KUNM: Tell me about the difference in impacts to people within the city versus people up in the mountains.

SCHERER: Here, people were very scared about what the impact would be if it got into the town, and specifically into the watershed for Las Vegas. And thankfully, they were able to prevent that from happening, because the impact would have been catastrophic. But in the rural areas, the thing that stuck out to me the most was we've had a lot of structures destroyed. And a lot of those are rural homes. And I've had a conversation with the planning and zoning director for San Miguel County, and they have a lot of people who built homes without having permits for them. So, technically, those homes don't exist. Which means those would not be covered under any kind of disaster relief. It's people like that, who built their homes themselves, did all this work, and they don't have anything to show for it. It's very unfortunate the way that things had to be done in terms of doing structure protection, because you have to do the most good for the most amount of people. And a lot of times, especially a couple weeks ago that included putting all your resources to protect the city of Las Vegas. And in the process of doing that, you know, you had a lot more rural areas that are smaller populations that got destroyed. And we'll be feeling the effects of that for a long time.

KUNM: Do you think they'll create some animosity between these rural and urban populations?

SCHERER: I think that's always been an undercurrent in that I think a lot of times people feel like they're being punished by these organizations for choosing to live a more rural lifestyle. Is it fair? Not necessarily. But it's also, when you have the chance to protect 10,000 people as opposed to 200, you have to weigh the risks of that. I'm hoping that these people are able to be made as whole as possible and that they can not be forced out of their chosen way of life.

KUNM: Are you hearing people – well, maybe rural areas and urban dwellers would have a difference of opinion of the forest service right now?

SCHERER: No matter who you talk to you around here, the opinion of the Forest Service probably isn't too high. Whether that's fair or unfair. What people here want right now is for the Forest Service to take responsibility for what happened. They'd also just like the federal government to take responsibility for what happened, instead of just saying, 'Oh, it's just three fires in New Mexico that have burned in the last 20 years that have gotten out of control.' Not just call it an outlier. Acknowledge that maybe it wasn't the best idea to set that fire on April 6, when we had Red Flag Warnings for fire conditions. The response by the Forest Service once this fire's put out, the response by the federal government, FEMA – that will determine the opinion of the Forest Service moving forward. But right now, it's not great.

KUNM’s Nash Jones contributed to this report.

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.
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