Resilience, anger as New Mexico wildfire burns ‘sacred ground’

LAS VEGAS, NM, May 4 (Reuters) – Daniel Encinias stands next to his camping trailer in a New Mexico evacuation zone and says he will rebuild his home burned down by the states’ largest wildfire -United.

He just wants the US Forest Service (USFS) to pay for it. The USFS confirmed that one of its controlled burns spun out of control early last month and then merged with another fire.

to become the second largest fire in state history at 160,104 acres (65,000 hectares).

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He is among more than 10,000 evacuees from the fire that tore through centuries-old villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains 30 miles northeast of Santa Fe and burned down the house Encinias had built from scratch.

“We are moved because of something that was done by forestry,” said Encinias, 55, using the common term in the region for USFS. “All I’m saying is fix what’s wrong…”

Like other people camping nearby, an RV and truck are all that’s left in Encinias. He has no home insurance. He relies on the help of his extended family and his community.

He, his wife, three children, four dogs and eight cats are crammed into the trailer at Storrie Lake State Park where he plans to throw his daughter’s high school graduation party.

The fire further strained relations with the U.S. government in the villages which saw Spanish colonial land grants stolen by 19th-century American speculators and subsistence use of ancestral forests restricted by the USFS.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday called on President Joe Biden to sign a disaster executive order to compensate families and restore watersheds and forests.

“You have a federal government that is certainly partly responsible for the situation we find ourselves in,” Lujan Grisham said.

A spokeswoman for the USFS Santa Fe National Forest, where the fire started, did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The second fire that the burn merged with is under investigation.

In the past, owners have sued government agencies for controlled burns gone wrong. It is also common for people who have lost their homes to receive payments through emergency funds.

The fire in one of the poorest US states is raging in two counties where household incomes are half the national average. Most of the homes lost are trailers on family land next to old mud-brick homes, said Paula Garcia, who runs a state irrigation association.

During a fire briefing on Tuesday in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Mayor Louie Trujillo bristled at officials’ description of burned homes as “structures” and said firefighters were defending a ” herencia” or a centuries-old heritage.

“This land is spiritual, these homes are spiritual, this is sacred ground,” Trujillo said. The fire threatens the historic town of Trujillo of 14,000 people as well as villages more than 30 miles to the north.

Back at the state park, Michael Salazar says he and his truck and trailer fled a fire that destroyed 10 of 11 homes in his Tierra Monte area. He linked the destruction to controlled burning.

“I just hope the government stands up and says, ‘Yeah, we do these things for a reason, they get out of control and we’re going to try to help you,'” Salazar, 55, said as helicopter gunships against the fires were flying over the nearby lake to fill up with water.

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Reporting by Andrew Hay in Las Vegas, New Mexico; Editing by Donna Bryson and Sandra Maler

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