Two Forest Service retirees barely saved their own home from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Their work is just beginning. - Albuquerque Journal

Two Forest Service retirees barely saved their own home from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Their work is just beginning.

PENDARIES – Rachel Garcia has fond memories of the time she and her husband, Max, spent working for the U.S. Forest Service and Park Service.

Now she deals with the backlash.

“I’ve had some people say, ‘You’re the ones who started the fire, aren’t you?’ They remembered me from the Forest Service,” she said.

She and Max lost nearly everything but their house in the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire last year, which began on federal land as separate controlled burns that got out of control. Charred equipment and sticks that were once trees surround their home, which was saved by Max and his son’s hard work during the fires.

The couple is proud of their Forest Service careers, but angry, along with many in the area, to see their land severely damaged by the wildfire caused, although inadvertently, by their former employer.

Rachel said she still has good relationships with her neighbors who bring it up. She and her husband have lived in or near Mora and Las Vegas for most of their lives, except for about 16 years when they were stationed around the West with the Forest Service and Park Service as a “dual career couple.”

Rachel worked a variety of jobs with both agencies and even gave tours as a park ranger. Max, who’s also a Vietnam combat veteran, served in a number of roles with the Forest Service, including as a firefighter.

“I know fire,” Max said. “I know fire behavior because I had extensive training and did that for four years.”

Their ranch is near Pendaries, about 10 miles south of Mora. Max stayed behind during the fires with his son to make firelines, put out what he could and protect his ranch and his animals.

He lost four barns and most of his equipment, which still sits on his land, some in a giant pile of metal that he can’t bring himself to move. The Garcia family ranches on about 600 acres of land and very little of it was untouched by the fire.

“This is basically a crime scene,” he said of the burnt debris and blackened forest.

The fire burned a total of about 340,000 acres of land last year in the state’s largest wildfire. At the time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administered more than $7 million to about 1,300 victims of the fire under its usual regulations for natural disasters.

“But what we have here is something completely different,” U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández said. “This is not disaster assistance. This is compensation for losses that were suffered because it was the United States’ fault, not the weather.”

The federal government admitted guilt and passed legislation making nearly $4 billion in relief funds available through FEMA, but those funds haven’t been distributed yet.

FEMA spokesperson Angela Byrd said the agency is aiming to open offices to handle claims from victims in late March in Santa Fe, San Miguel and Mora counties. She added that it interviewed more than 130 local candidates and has extended 25 tentative job offers from that pool. She also said FEMA will onboard 15 to 20 new local hires in mid-March and plans to make additional offers.

Leger Fernández has been a vocal advocate for victims of the fire, and her office works with them to navigate the assistance available now and down the road. She said she requested that FEMA hire only locals for positions as navigators, who are responsible for guiding victims through the application.

“It’s been very frustrating for a local community because we’ve had to educate the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and FEMA on things like acequias,” she said.

Navigating aid

Some victims elect to work with case workers on their applications, and some choose to consult attorneys to help them make assessments about the damage done to their property and what they’ll need to recover from it.

In addition to his work with the Forest Service, Max Garcia also worked with the Department of the Interior, and his son works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rachel Garcia said that between the three of them, they feel confident that they can adequately assess the damage done to their property and have submitted their application to FEMA without the help of a caseworker or attorneys.

She said they received some help from FEMA early on, but it’s been slow moving.

“At the beginning, there was no help from anyone,” she said. “It was just an application.”

They received an initial $500 for emergency supplies and food, and then another $1,200 for emergency home repairs and $8,000 for repairs to their well. But that’s a small sum considering what they’ve lost.

Max and Rachel bought a generator to keep the lights on and the refrigerator going, knowing that at the time, FEMA wasn’t covering them.

And then there’s the land itself. Much of it is covered in blackened, bare trees that still stand tall, but you can see right through the forest, even at a distance.

“I had thinned this whole area,” Max said as he walked through the forest. “You can tell that everything had been thinned out really nice. Had good spacing.”

Max has spent much of his life tending to this land, and since the fire, he’s continued that work, clearing the forest, rebuilding his damaged fences and taking care of livestock. And someone’s noticing – namely, local elk.

“There’s a lot of droppings in the area,” he said as he walked between the burned trees on his property. “But I like that. It shows I’m doing my job.”

Editor’s Note: Three families, three diverse stories. Nearly a year after the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire grew out of control, the Journal spoke with three families who are still reeling from its effects. Read the full series:

Home » ABQnews Seeker » Two Forest Service retirees barely saved their own home from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Their work is just beginning.

Insert Question Legislature form in Legis only stories

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

taboola desktop

ABQjournal can get you answers in all pages


Questions about the Legislature?
Albuquerque Journal can get you answers
Email addresses are used solely for verification and to speed the verification process for repeat questioners.
Photos from the funeral for Archbishop Emeritus Michael Sheehan
ABQnews Seeker
Meet the former Alamogordo resident making a big impact ...
ABQnews Seeker
He grew up in New Mexico, ... He grew up in New Mexico, so it was no surprise Houston Astros prospect Quincy Hamilton looked at home in Isotopes Park this week.
Five factors to consider as United takes "professional approach" ...
ABQnews Seeker
Save the long-odds conversation for someone ... Save the long-odds conversation for someone else. United's players and coaches don't want to hear it.
UNM's Museum of Southwestern Biology to display collections at ...
ABQnews Seeker
From 4-9 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, ... From 4-9 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, the public is invited to "Evolution Revealed: An Open Collections Event."
Hundreds pack Santa Fe cathedral for Archbishop Sheehan’s funeral ...
ABQnews Seeker
Achbishop Emeritus Michael J. Sheehan died ... Achbishop Emeritus Michael J. Sheehan died June 3 at age 83. Here's how he was remembered.
Barelas Park reopens after nearly $2 million renovation
ABQnews Seeker
Barelas Park reopened to the public ... Barelas Park reopened to the public Wednesday with many new features.
New Mexico State Police officer accused of sexually assaulting ...
ABQnews Seeker
A State Police officer was arrested ... A State Police officer was arrested Friday in the alleged sexual assault of a 20-year-old woman while the two were on a New Mexico ...
Solomon Peña to remain in custody, judge rules
ABQnews Seeker
A judge said he could find ... A judge said he could find no conditions of release that would reasonably ensure the safety of the community, despite a defense attorney's contention ...
Proposed rule for public lands expected to have outsized ...
ABQnews Seeker
A coalition of conservation and outdoor ... A coalition of conservation and outdoor recreation enthusiasts is urging New Mexicans to support the proposal. Opponents, in turn, question whether the rule will ...