Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
LAS VEGAS, N.M. — For Louie Trujillo, each day feels like a bad dream that won’t end.
The Las Vegas mayor looks out of his office window at the smoke rising west of town.
“This land is sacred,” Trujillo said. “These cabins and ranchitos are more than just sticks and nails. This is our herencia, our lineage. That’s what hurts.”
Thick smoke settled over Las Vegas on Wednesday as crews battled the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire throughout the day.
The blaze has grown to more than 160,000 acres — making it the second largest in New Mexico’s history. It is 20% contained and nearly 1,300 people are fighting it. Thousands of homes are under mandatory evacuation orders.
The city, home to about 13,000 residents, has been busy.
The community has rallied together, offering evacuees food and places to stay.
“That’s the thing about northern New Mexico, you know, when something happens, you make a pan of enchiladas or take a pot of beans or posole to somebody. People are so generous, especially with food,” Trujillo said.
The mayor’s Las Vegas home is currently safe, but he has a “go bag” just in case. He doesn’t yet know how his family’s Gallinas cabin — passed down for generations — has fared in the fire.
Meanwhile, planes fly overhead as smoke plumes flare up west of town.
Water tanks and fire trucks are stationed around the historic plaza, and several signs read “Pray for Rain.”
A line of customers outside the Walmart stretches around the building as residents at risk of evacuation wait to buy groceries. The store was closed Monday and Tuesday due to staffing issues.
Help on the way
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration so those affected by several wildfires burning in New Mexico can begin getting federal assistance. It’s the first time a declaration has been issued while an emergency is ongoing.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham formally requested the declaration Wednesday morning and the congressional delegation sent a letter, as well, urging the president to approve it. Biden signed off on the request hours after receiving it.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández shared the news during the nightly fire briefing.
“We made the point all along that these communities needed help and needed help right now,” Leger Fernández said. “They are communities that are centuries old, they are communities that might not be rich in cash and income, but they are incredibly rich in culture and heritage. They are lands that have been taken care of for centuries and homes that have been taken care of for centuries, and are being destroyed.”
In a news release, the congressional delegation said the major disaster declaration will open access to the Public Assistance and Individual Assistance funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is also asking for the Biden administration to waive the 25% non-federal cost-share requirement for federal assistance. Typically, state and local governments are expected to pick up that portion.
“Public Assistance supports the restoration and reconstruction of public infrastructure and lands,” the news release states. “Individual Assistance supports families from losses suffered due to the fires.”
Leger Fernández said the federal resources can be used for rental or legal assistance, child care and more. She said FEMA is planning to set up sites in town to help people navigate the process.
‘Your prayers are working’
The Hermits Peak Fire began in early April as a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service.
At the Wednesday evening briefing, officials said the day had brought unexpectedly favorable winds, and Thursday and Friday are expected to be rare days without a red flag warning — a proclamation that received scattered applause.
“I’m not sure what everybody did, but your prayers are working,” said Dan Pearson, a fire behavior analyst. “We had advantageous winds throughout the entire area.”
Pearson said 24 of the past 30 days had been red-flag days, “so the fact that we get two straight days that are not red-flag days … we’re ecstatic.”
He said the winds are expected to be relatively light and the humidity relatively good overnight for the next couple of days.
“We want to take advantage of this fact for the next two days, but also being completely clear and honest with you: We are moving into the weekend and this will extend all the way through Tuesday … we are looking at red-flag conditions for the next five to six days,” Pearson said. “We really want to take advantage of the next 48 hours and make hay while the sun shines.”
While no new communities were evacuated Wednesday, officials stressed that it’s too soon to bring those who have left back.
“Looking at this from a public safety standpoint, I would feel a lot more comfortable to get through this period and make sure things are good to go before we start repopulating,” said Chris Lopez, San Miguel County sheriff. “The worst thing we want to do is to allow people back into an area and then have to bring them back out.”
‘Our people are strong’
Then there are those who never left.
Crystal Lujan met up with her grandmother and aunt Wednesday afternoon to get supplies at a roadblock west of town. Smoke obscured the view of the United World College and Montezuma Castle, a historic landmark that is threatened.
A couple of spot fires started near the United World College, but did not present any problems, said Todd Abel, operations section chief.
Lujan chose not to evacuate her home near Montezuma. The smoke on her property sometimes makes it hard to breathe and ash “falls like snow.”
“But that place is all we have,” Lujan said. “We’re doing whatever to protect it. I don’t want to start from ground zero.”
Lujan is one of thousands of northern New Mexico residents at risk from the fire. At least 166 homes have been destroyed in San Miguel County.
Officials paused damage assessments this week as fire activity kicked up again.
“I haven’t been sleeping much,” Lujan said. “I’m so paranoid. What if the fire jumps that line, what then? What can we do with a little garden hose?”
Meanwhile, Mayor Trujillo has been busy dealing with the day-to-day emergencies of the fire.
Late Sunday night, he got the call that the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute needed to evacuate 200 patients. He is the facility’s accreditation officer.
“It’s something that we always planned (for), but never thought that it would happen,” Trujillo said. “And that’s how I feel about Las Vegas right now. We never thought we would live through something like this.” He has requested a visit from President Biden.
The mayor knows that there will be a long road ahead to recovery after crews finally extinguish the blaze.
Housing will be needed, and the city’s water supply could suffer from ash in the Gallinas River.
“But our people are strong,” he said.
Applying for help
Residents and business owners who sustained losses in Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties can begin applying for assistance Thursday by registering online at DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week until further notice.