Wildfire Recovery: One Year Later
At the height of last year’s Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak wildfire, the nation’s attention focused squarely on New Mexico. National media outlets descended on our state to report on the fire, the largest and most destructive in New Mexico history. Eventually, the blaze would consume nearly 350,000 acres, making it the biggest wildfire in the contiguous United States in 2022.
But by the time the fires were contained in August, the country’s attention had turned elsewhere – and locals were left to continue the hard work of recovery they had begun months before. Today, that work continues.
The Fires Begin – and SFCF Partners with Local Organizations to Respond
What we now recognize as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire began with unusual winds on April 22, 2022. This weather event brought together two existing wildfires – a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn and an insufficiently-extinguished Forest Service pile burn – compounding an already-challenging wildfire situation.
When the scale of the wildfires became clear, SFCF leadership took a series of quick and decisive steps.
First, the Foundation activated its Community Resiliency Fund (CRF) to meet the immediate needs of residents and nonprofits in the affected areas. Created to celebrate SFCF’s 40thanniversary in 2021 – and inspired in part by the COVID-19 pandemic – we designed CRF to have the flexibility to respond to emergency events in real time. The fund's endowment structure enables the Foundation to build the fund over time while also making grants as needs arise – and during the fires, that is exactly what happened. Donors and concerned community residents contributed to CRF, and the Foundation distributed those funds in record time.
To help manage this process, SFCF convened a seven-member Wildfire Committee to gather reports of changing conditions and community needs.
Thankfully, over the course of our 40 year history, the Foundation had already developed strong relationships with a broad range of organizations and community leaders in the affected areas – so we were able to keep lines of communication open as events unfolded.
At first, we made discretionary grants through CRF before opening an application process.
“In order to be equitable, we created a simple one-page application that organizations could complete in order to request funds,” says Diane Hamamoto, Director of Grants and Community Impact. “We worked hard to channel incoming donations out the door as quickly as we could.”
So far, grants through the Community Resiliency Fund have totaled more than $500,000 for wildfire relief and recovery within Mora, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Taos Counties.
Hamamoto recalls that SFCF also got creative about how to get funds to those who needed them. “The post office in Mora was closed due to the fire, so we sent checks to family members of local nonprofit leaders – and those family members got them into the right hands.”
Over the course of the conflagration, more than 15,500 people were evacuated from towns like Mora, Cleveland, and Las Vegas. In each of these places, however, some locals chose to stay on the land, hoping to protect their homes and livestock.
Given the closure of Highway 518, it was clear that locals would face emergency needs. Local nonprofits and community organizers mobilized to distribute toiletries, Walmart gift cards, gas and hotel vouchers, and other necessities. Sunrise Kiwanis of Las Vegas, a Community Resiliency Fund grantee, poured volunteer time and energy into these efforts – as well as finding hotel rooms for stranded local families. MainStreet de Las Vegas – another CRF grantee – provided $250 payments to help families make ends meet. With CRF support, the Food Depot made Mobile Food Pantry deliveries to Mora and Las Vegas and offered pop-up food distributions at schools and libraries in Peñasco, Española, Taos, and Las Vegas.
Things soon became more challenging for residents of San Miguel and Mora. In order to avoid electrical fires, officials decided to cut power to these areas. For residents who had stayed behind, however, this meant that village water pumps no longer functioned.
The Center of Southwest Culture, a Santa Fe Community Foundation CRF grantee, helped address this challenge, delivering three generators to Mora and nearby areas.
Our support went beyond grantmaking through our Community Resiliency Fund. We also served as a connector for local organizations. For example, we recognized that in a region where 80% of households rely on wood for heating (and 40% for cooking), firewood was going to be essential to help families survive. We organized a master firewood distribution list, helping several organizations coordinate their deliveries without redundancy.
The Fire’s Meaning for Local Ways of Life
Residents of Mora, San Miguel, and Taos counties were conscious that the fire represented more than a threat to their homes and livelihoods. The fire also threatened ways of life – including land grants, settlements, and homesteads where communities have cultivated the earth and co-managed acequia water resources since the Spanish Empire.
In the flooding that has characterized the aftermath of the fire, many acequias have sustained significant damage. In addition, the fire destroyed more than 900 buildings, including several hundred homes. Because some buildings existed on land grants that go back hundreds of years, locals have faced challenges proving their ownership – and have encountered obstacles from insurance companies and government bodies when seeking recompense for their losses.
SFCF used the Community Resiliency Fund to fund free legal assistance – FEMA applications, appeals of denials, document replacement and litigation related to FEMA/disaster issues, and more – through NM Legal Aid (NMLA).
The Road Ahead
Locals understand that recovery will be a long-term endeavor. The fire created a series of cascading challenges, each of which requires its own response.
For example, many ranchers’ grazing fields burned and won’t be usable for five to ten years, and mountain grazing has been banned in some areas for the next three years. As a result, ranchers are facing challenges providing food for their livestock.
In response, a team of community organizers and nonprofits recently came together to provide relief. With funding from SFCF’s Community Resiliency Fund and the All Together NM Fund, Orphan Grain Train delivered 150 barrels of hay and distributed them to 50local farmers in and around Mora. “There is still a need for more hay… but there were lots of happy faces [that day]. It was a great day,” said community organizer Kenneth Krusemark.
The region will also have to be reforested – an especially difficult proposition given that many of the area’s dirt roads are now washed out and impassable.
Mudslides also remain a continuing threat – as does the ongoing contamination of well water from flooding. In a region where water infrastructure was already precarious, this challenge is especially pressing.
The Conservation Science Center at New Mexico Highlands University is key to many of these efforts. According to Shantini Ramakrishnan, Conservation & Restoration Education Program Manager, "The fire redefined our landscape and our focus as we considered our displaced population and the multitude of challenges ahead. We quickly pivoted and used SFCF funds to support ‘Querencia in Action’ workshops designed to build community capacity in post-fire land restoration.”
The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance will also likely be central to environmental cleanup and restoration efforts.
According to Executive Director Lea Knutson, “Community members can lend a hand to neighbors and watershed restoration or conservation organizations that struggle to find enough volunteers to get watershed restoration work done on the ground.”
National and Local Solutions
During his June 2022 visit to meet Governor Lujan Grisham and state emergency management officials, President Biden pledged that the federal government would cover the full cost of the fires. And in September of 2022, New Mexico’s congressional delegation secured $2.5 billion in federal aid to support individuals and businesses affected by the fires.
Still, local residents continue to face uncertainty about FEMA’s timeline for finalizing rules and making determinations about compensation. In the meantime, many local volunteers and nonprofits are continuing the recovery and aid work they began last April. Some of these organizations are going far beyond the scope of their normal operations – and they show no signs of slowing down.
SFCF is taking a similar approach.
“Our goal wasn’t just to give money while the fires were burning and stop when they were extinguished,” says Hamamoto. “One of the Foundation’s four values is perseverance – and we recognize that the road to recovery will be long.”
Hamamoto also emphasizes that the response from the nonprofit sector has been a shining example of local expertise, personal relationships, and community leadership in action. “While no one asked for this fire, we have been consistently moved by the grit and grace of Mora, San Miguel, and Taos County residents – and we will continue to stand alongside them .”
Support wildfire recovery with a gift to our Community Resiliency Fund today: