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Wildfire victims living on land grants may not qualify for federal aid

As New Mexico’s largest wildfire continues to burn, residents are trying to focus on rebuilding. The federal government has pledged help for those who lost property or jobs due to the fire. But residents living on land grants distributed by Spanish rulers centuries ago may not qualify for that aid.

Walking on the scorched earth that his family tended for generations, Simon Lucero says he didn’t lose a home in the biggest forest fire in the history of New Mexico. But he did lose his heart.

I feel like I lost an arm, or a leg. I lost the place we went for firewood and camping. There is nothing we can do now. We will need help to restore the land" said Lucero in Spanish.

Lucero, who is 76, and lives on the Los Vigiles land grant north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, is one of hundreds of people whose communal land burned. It’s land they have relied upon for generations to collect firewood, fish, graze livestock, and hunt elk. All that is left of the tall pines is now scorched earth and broken rocks. He said he’s angry and he thinks the federal government should help them recover.

They never should have lit that fire." he said. "There was too much air. I will never see the land back to normal again at my age."

Lucero is referring to the U.S. Forest Service, which began what became the Hermits Peak Fire as a prescribed burn in early April, a windy season in New Mexico. The burn jumped containment and eventually joined with the Calf Canyon Fire, which the Forest Service recently admitted it also began as a pile burn in January and was dormant until spring winds revived it.

The fires have consumed more than 300,000 acres in northern New Mexico, much of them on land grants passed down from Spanish settlers hundreds of years ago.

Longtime residents like Lucero said not only did the U.S. government start the fire, but now there is no clear path to recovering their losses. Many don’t have the information that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to offer them grants, or their losses aren’t the kinds that are recognized by the federal government, such as private primary residences. Most cabins that burned were collectively built and owned by land grant members.

Eddie Quintana, who is also part of the Los Vigiles land grant, which is not officially recognized by the state, says he started the application to ask for financial aid from FEMA but didn’t get very far.

“Personally, I have never had conversations with FEMA," said Quintana, as he drove up a steep hill to the burned area of the land grant. "I did pull up their application to apply for assistance. And their application requires certain information that we don't have. For example, they're asked for an EIN number. And that EIN number is basically identifies you as a state entity, which we are not currently.”

Quintana said most of the animals that survived may not live long without food or water sources lost in the fires. Sales of elk hunting permits by land grant administrators usually generate $8,000 annually and that funds things like road maintenance and the creation of water collection structures for animals. He also says that without the trees, he and others will now need to buy firewood to heat their homes, which could cost thousands of dollars per household.

FEMA information officer Angela Byrd confirmed that although the agency says it will help anyone with losses, there is still a list of documents needed and a specific set of losses that FEMA covers, specifically primary residences and vehicles. Loss of economic bases or even community cabins are not covered by FEMA.

Eric Romero is a professor at Highlands University in Las Vegas who studies land-based communities and Hispanic culture.

“Hopefully, this tragedy, this travesty, will open up lines of communication so that the rebuilding process, whether it be reforestation, whether they be committed to development activities, around resource management and resource utilization, that there's a different level of communication that comes about in place because of this tragic loss.”

He said locals have been trying to engage with the Forest Service on traditional land management techniques for years. That includes forest thinning and making access paths for hunters and firefighters to reach fires before they are out of control.

Simon’s son, Ruben Lucero, said he’s angry that he and others living on the land grant haven’t gotten much information from the government of how to move forward, but he mostly feels sad knowing that his children and grandchildren won’t be able to experience the forest as it was just weeks ago.

“Knowing that something that was passed on to me by my grandparents and my family, as hunting and gathering wood up in these mountains, our whole life that I got to share with my boy who's 15-years-old now," said Ruben as he stood outside a communal barn near the burn zone. "That scares me every day thinking that he won't be able to pass the tradition that we've had passed on to us and kind of think it might end with him. That's the saddest part, I think, about this whole fire.”

This content is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.

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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