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It was supposed to be a controlled burn, but a New Mexico fire got out of control

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say the U.S. Forest Service started a planned burn in New Mexico that escaped in 2000. In fact, the National Park Service started the burn.]


New Mexico's giant wildfire is all but out now. So now people in the burned areas try to rebuild their lives. From our member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports.

PETER VELAZQUEZ: Come on, ladies.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Rancher Peter Velazquez calls to about 20 cows and calves in a field next to his house.

VELAZQUEZ: I feed them every morning.

FORDHAM: That's expensive, especially at a time when the cattle would normally be grazing in the mountains that surround this verdant valley of the Mora River. This year, those mountains are covered in burned patches.

VELAZQUEZ: There's no fences for us. No, they're all burnt. I don't know what's going to happen.

FORDHAM: The Forest Service has forbidden grazing to give the mountains a chance to recover after the fire.

VELAZQUEZ: I don't have a place to keep them on. So right now I'm still feeding.

FORDHAM: Nearby, in the forest, outside the town of Mora, I meet artist and teacher Anita Ross, and we look at the remains of a tin-roofed cabin, which was her home for 20 years.

ANITA ROSS: Well, and there's literally just tin on the ground. It burned really hot. There's nothing left in there.

FORDHAM: It was cute, she says, with her artwork and woven baskets. A breeze through the blackened trees shakes the charred tin. She shows me another pile of twisted junk, which was a studio.

ROSS: I had 30 years worth of every imaginable art supply in there.

FORDHAM: She taught art to local kids as a volunteer.

ROSS: I had a lot of supplies, but they were all categorized. So if I wanted to teach a class on papermaking, bam, I got my stuff. And I'm just going to have to reassess all of that.

FORDHAM: Anita and her husband had been working on a new house. They can live in that. But on the other side of the mountains in the town of Espanola, I meet Bernice Naranjo and her husband Tito, who began renovating a centuries-old house in 1971.

BERNICE NARANJO: From nothing building, that one little tiny room that was not even a room became a beautiful home.

FORDHAM: She tells me about a lovely chokecherry tree there.

NARANJO: I made some great jam, right? So that was a special treat. When the fire came and we finally got to see our land that was demolished by the fire, it was so sad because the chokecherry tree was totally cut down.

FORDHAM: Like many in this low-income area, they don't have insurance. They say when they asked FEMA for help, the emergency agency denied them on the grounds the house wasn't their primary residence. Bernice says she'd been spending time with her children lately, but it was their home. They're not alone. Initial estimates suggest hundreds of homes were lost. FEMA says it has given about $4 million to about 1,100 people. So with basic division, that's about $4,000 each. The agency says in this rural area, documentation is often an issue, and it encourages people to appeal rejections and call a hotline for legal aid. Bernice says lots of displaced people have been managing on their own.

NARANJO: Paying on their own, finding money.

FORDHAM: And what angers her the most is that this fire, the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire, began as planned burns by the U.S. Forest Service, which escaped control.

NARANJO: All of us are feeling the same grief and anger towards Forest Service that is so intense. I actually wanted to sit and get a bucket of ashes from our house and send it to the Forest Service because they are accountable.

FORDHAM: This isn't the first time the Forest Service allowed what was supposed to be a controlled burn to escape in New Mexico with devastating consequences. In 2000, an escaped planned burn destroyed about 280 homes and damaged the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Back then, Congress passed a law that everyone affected would be fully compensated. That could happen this time as well.

New Mexico lawmakers have managed to get similar legislation wrapped into the annual national defense bill. It's passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. But there's still a question of timing. Back in 2000, FEMA rebuilt a lot of homes, but two years on, some people were still living in trailers. A government report from 2003 documents lingering unpaid claims, and people here say they're in need now. Remember that rancher, Peter Velazquez?

VELAZQUEZ: This fire has really set us back - life-changing for sure.

FORDHAM: His cows are now grazing land where he normally grows hay he'll need over the winter. If he doesn't get help soon...

VELAZQUEZ: Well, I think there's a lot of us that are probably going to have to sell. Either - well, like myself, I might have to get rid of half.

FORDHAM: So during the wait to see if compensation will pass into law, local lawyer Antonia Roybal-Mack is preparing a mass tort case against the Forest Service. She is unconvinced by the report the agency produced on the fire.

ANTONIA ROYBAL-MACK: Basically it's we did everything wrong, but we do everything wrong all the time.

FORDHAM: She wants to sue so that planned burn policy changes and locals like her own family get help.

ROYBAL-MACH: We are talking about generational land, people who live off the land - so filing suits for them to be made whole.

FORDHAM: Meantime, there are things happening. The landscape is getting assistance. The National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers built flood defenses. There are plans for reseeding. But people look likely to keep struggling for some time.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: July 20, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly say the U.S. Forest Service started a planned burn in New Mexico that escaped in 2000. In fact, the National Park Service started the burn.
Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.