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Wildfire HEROs provide disaster resilience in their communities

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has caused extensive damage to forests in northern New Mexico
Alice Fordham
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has caused extensive damage to forests in northern New Mexico

In northern New Mexico communities hard-hit by wildfires, “Health Extension Regional Officers - or HEROs - from the University of New Mexico are working to connect people to the resources they need. They’re part of UNM’s Office for Community Health. KUNM’s Jered Ebenreck spoke with one HERO, Raymond Sanchez, who’s the Director of Montañas del Norte Area Health Education Center at Luna Community College. He grew up in Las Vegas, and the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire forced him to evacuate his offices at the Community College at 3 a.m. on May 3rd.

RAYMOND SANCHEZ: We were told to be able to get our belongings prior to that date, because we didn't know if the fire would eventually reach Luna. And so with that said, be prepared to get all of the things that I needed to survive on a day-to-day basis.

KUNM: Help the listeners understand how you're being impacted by the wildfires.

SANCHEZ: We're watching the blaze coming from the mountains above the fire coming from the Montezuma area and coming from Gallinas first, El Porvenir Canyon and then to Montezuma, a lot of people were just scared, devastated. Is the fire going to impact Las Vegas? Is it going to impact our watershed? Lastly, is it going to impact our homes, our lives, schools, workplace especially coming out of COVID people coming out of their homes, going back to work, all these kinds of things. And then now being evacuated from work. People being evacuated from their homes.

They closed the road from where I live. So all of that area, on the west side of Las Vegas, whether it be schools, Luna Community College campus, people who lived in the area were evacuated and basically trying to find shelter, trying to find a place for their items, their livestock, their own pets. Going back into frantic mode, what do I need to pack? What's the essential things that I need to get out of my home? Those are all the thoughts that were, you know, in people's minds here in Las Vegas.

KUNM: What are you doing to help address these concerns that you've just spelled out in the community?

SANCHEZ: Just being able to be the liaison. I'm part of a bigger group called the 100% Community San Miguel County group. What happens is that there's 10 essential services through Surviving and Thriving Services — from medical, behavioral health, job training, parent support, education, transportation, housing. There's representatives from each one of those groups and pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, after the pandemic, and especially during the disaster, what that group is designed to do, 100% Community, is identify gaps within the community. What services exist for behavioral health; what services exist for medical? What about job training, workforce development? Who's hiring? People need behavioral health services. How are we demonstrating and connecting people with behavioral health services? Same thing with medical action, parent support, youth, job training, transportation, housing, all those kinds of things.

Right now our biggest gap is actually finding housing for our elderly. And people that have been displaced; people that can't go back to their homes yet. They may be able to go back to their property, but there's no land, there's no house to live on, on that land, no electricity, no water, all those kinds of things. So how can we connect these people to these services? And what can we do more for the people that are being displaced and being evacuated and experience this traumatic event within their lives right now. So that's exactly what I do.

KUNM: How is a HERO, a Health Extension Regional Officer, uniquely poised to be of service during this kind of devastation?

SANCHEZ: So, I think the unique part about being a HERO is that we know our community, that's the best part of being a HERO. Having someone within this position who can identify all of these different groups, communication levels, people, not only being able to connect, but also being able to relate to the people, we're from the area.

KUNM: Thank you for joining me, Raymond Sanchez. Please stay safe

SANCHEZ: I appreciate you, Jered, and thank you so much for your time.

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
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