Daniel Encinias stands next to his camping trailer in a New Mexico evacuation zone, vowing to rebuild his home, which was destroyed by the country’s largest wildfire.
He simply wants the United States Forest Service (USFS) to pay for it. The US Forest Service confirmed that one of its controlled burns erupted early last month and later merged with another fire to become the state’s second largest blaze, covering 160,104 acres (65,000 hectares).
He is one of up to 10,000 evacuees from the fire that has ravaged centuries-old villages in the Sangre de Cristo mountains 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Santa Fe and destroyed the house Encinias had built from the ground up. “We’re displaced because of something that was done by forestry,” said Encinias, 55, using the term common in the area for the USFS. “All I say is fix what’s messed up ….”
Encinias, like the other campers nearby, has only an RV and a truck. He does not have home insurance. He is relying on his extended family and the community for assistance.
He and his wife, three children, four dogs, and eight cats are crammed into a trailer at Storrie Lake State Park, where he intends to hold his daughter’s high school graduation party.
The fire has strained relations with the US government in villages where Spanish colonial land grants were stolen by nineteenth-century American speculators and subsistence use of ancestral forests was restricted by the USFS.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham urged President Joe Biden on Tuesday to sign a disaster declaration to compensate families and restore watersheds and forests. “You have a federal government who is certainly partially to blame for the situation we are in,” Lujan Grisham said.
A spokeswoman for the US Forest Service’s Santa Fe National Forest, where the fire began, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The second fire, with which the burn merged, is being investigated.
Homeowners have previously sued government agencies for controlled burns that went wrong. It is also common for people who have lost their homes to receive payments from emergency funds.
The fire is raging in two counties in one of the poorest states in the country, where household incomes are half the national average. According to Paula Garcia, executive director of the state irrigation association, many of the lost homes are trailers on family land next to older adobe mud-brick homes. At a fire briefing on Tuesday, Mayor Louie Trujillo of Las Vegas, New Mexico, reacted angrily to officials’ description of burned houses as “structures,” saying firefighters were defending a centuries-old “herencia,” or inheritance.
“That land is spiritual, those houses are spiritual, it’s sacred land,” said Trujillo. The fire threatens Trujillo, a historic city of 14,000 people, as well as villages more than 30 miles north.
Back at the state park, Michael Salazar claims he fled a fire that destroyed 10 of 11 homes in his Tierra Monte neighborhood with his truck and trailer. He connected the devastation to the controlled burn.
“I just hope the government stands up and says, ‘Yes we do these things for a reason, they do get out of control, and we are going to try to help you,'” said Salazar, 55, as firefighting helicopters hovered over the nearby lake to fill up with water.