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Two years on from historic fire, northern New Mexico communities wait for help to rebuild

Damage from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in Mora County
Alice Fordham
Damage from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in Mora County

April 6 marks two years since a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn in Las Dispensas, north of Las Vegas, was whipped up by furious winds and declared the Hermit's Peak wildfire.

It would combine with the Calf Canyon fire, which started after pile burns also conducted by the Forest Service smoldered under snow all winter, to become the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire: the state's biggest ever. It burned hundreds of homes and hundreds of square miles of land, much of it in the Santa Fe National Forest, and despite promises of billions of dollars of help from the federal government, communities are still struggling to rebuild.

In the early days of the fire, Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales visited Mora County, the heart of the burn.

"All around is the skies filled with with smoke, orange, in every part that you look," he recalled.

Hundreds of people had evacuated homes that were often next to or right in the forest.

"And just knowing that the fear and the devastation that was impacting families was something that you'll just never forget," he said.

Much of the land affected belonged to Hispanic families who had lived there for many generations, some of whose agricultural livelihoods depended on healthy forests and water sources that then burned beyond recognition.

"The thing that I remember the most is going to family members, members who had lost generations of home, the farms, the impact to those way of life that we hold so dear in the state of New Mexico," Morales said.

By the time the fire was finally out, more than four months later, forests where people had grazed cattle and had permits to gather wood for sale were hundreds of miles of charred wasteland. Rain poured over blackened soil and washed debris down into valleys and vital waterways - and flooding is still a major problem.

"We're grateful that we got the amount of snowfall that we had this last year," said Carol Litherland, whose home near Rociada burned completely. "There is, of course, the fear of what that's going to mean in terms of flooding when it melts."

Litherland took KUNM on a tour of her scorched property a year ago. She is working with contractors to clear the debris and rebuild her house but the work is painfully slow.

"There's no way that we're going to be back in our house until probably late fall 2025," she said. "And that's a long time after this fire."

Meantime, she is living in Las Vegas. She should be entitled to help rebuilding, after Congress passed legislation promising full compensation for the people impacted by the fire. Eventually nearly $4 billion was appropriated, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was charged with administering the compensation program. It opened offices in Santa Fe, Mora and Las Vegas.

But on this second anniversary, Litherland and much of the community are deeply frustrated with what they see as endless red tape and delays in being paid.

"Every time we talk we're always talking about, well, where are you at with FEMA? Where are you? How are things going?" she said.

She and her husband have the resources to start rebuilding and wait to be compensated but many people don't have that option.

FEMA's latest figures, issued last month, say the agency has paid out $433 million in claims, a bit more than half of that to households or individuals like Litherland. Morales said that is not enough.

"There's only been about 10% of those dollars that have been expended out of $4 billion - $4 billion of compensation that was funded. It's unacceptable," he said.

He does see some recent improvements. The claims office in Mora has expanded. The claims office's director Angela Gladwell stepped down in January as part of what was described as a restructuring of federal disaster response.

"But I still am waiting to see when a new FEMA claims director will be named," he said. "Hopefully, that'll be soon. And hopefully, it'll be a person who truly understands what is needed there for the communities that have been affected."

He plans to speak at an event on April 8 in Las Vegas commemorating the anniversary of the fire. A community organization of fire victims called the Coalition for Fire Fund Fairness will screen a documentary called Mora Is Burning, followed by a panel discussion. FEMA representatives have been invited.

Meantime people like Carol Litherland keep trying to get back to their land

"I mean, when we go back there, it feels like home," she said. "It's kind of like a deep sigh of breath. We're here, we wish we could just be here."

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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