LAS VEGAS, NM – As rushing flames neared the remote mountains where his family has lived for generations, Miguel Martinez knew he had to move fast and flee with only the clothes on his back.
“I left behind 25 goats, 50 rabbits, 10 chickens and two dogs,” said Mr. Martinez, 71, who escaped his home in the village of El Oro this week for an evacuee shelter. “I have no idea if my house is standing or if my animals are alive. I need to prepare for the possibility everything was wiped out. ”
More than a dozen wildfires are raging this month across the Southwest, as fire season stretches earlier than ever into spring. But the country’s largest active blaze, a megafire that has ballooned across more than 160,000 acres in northern New Mexico, has evolved with such ferocity that it threatens a multigenerational culture that has endured for centuries.
Like Mr. Martinez, many who have fled the megafire, known as the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak fire, are descendants of Hispanic settlers who arrived in New Mexico long before the United States came into existence. They intermarried with Native Americans, honed ways to grow crops in parched lands and preserved an archaically influenced form of Spanish that can still be heard in the aisles of the local Walmart.
Speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English, Mr. Martinez, a retired musician, said his ancestors had settled so long ago in the village of Mañuelitas, where he grew up in a home built by his forebears, that he was not exactly sure when they had arrived. His wife is from the Aragón family, which long ago made nearby El Oro its home, he said.
“It was a little bit of a shock to move to El Oro, but I’m adapted now,” Mr. Martinez said, reflecting on how closely bloodlines remain tied to the land in these remote settlements surrounded by pine trees and trout-laden streams. “I just hope I have a village to go back to.”
Shaped by challenges that range from conquering armies to long economic slumps, these far-flung Hispanic villages withstood one test after another. But the worst drought in at least 1,200 yearsmarked by intense and unwieldy fire activity, is something new.
“These fires are burning down a way of life that’s lasted hundreds of years,” said Rob Martinez, New Mexico’s state historian and an Albuquerque native whose parents hailed from Mora and Chacon, two outposts in the fire zone. (He is not related to the retired musician from El Oro.)
Las Vegas, NM, a town of about 13,000 that has long served as a hub for the surrounding villages and ranches, has become the nerve center for the fight against the blaze. Crews raced to the fire lines this week as ash fell from a sky shifting at times from bright blue to a surreal orange hue.
As the fire continues to spread, it already is ranks as the third largest on record in New Mexico, eclipsing the acreage lost to fires in the entire state in 2021. While no lives have been lost, the fire has destroyed at least 172 homes, forced many families to evacuate and remains just 20 percent contained. As dry weather persists, authorities warn that the fire could expand in various directions in the coming days.
At least six other wildfires are currently scorching other parts of New Mexico, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and this week President Biden approved a disaster declaration for five counties. The state’s blazes include the Cooks Peak fire, which has grown to 59,000 acres in Mora County, and the Cerro Pelado fire, a 25,000-acre blaze within 5.5 miles of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which helps to design and maintain the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. .
As flames from the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak fire could be seen on ridges from Las Vegas in recent days, officials evacuated the nearby United World College, a boarding school founded by the industrialist Armand Hammer, and emptied out the county jail, releasing some inmates and transferring others.
Some who were forced to flee gathered in a shelter in an old middle school. Others slept in their vehicles or decamped to the homes of relatives or friends; some who had already evacuated to Las Vegas had to evacuate again when smoke filled the skies above the town.
Diana Trujillo, 63, was raised in a three-room adobe home with her seven siblings in Monte Aplanado, near Mora. She said the ancestral structure survived the fire, but the double-wide trailer next door, where she had lived with her daughter and granddaughter, burned to the ground.
“It’s a loss I can not even put into words,” said Ms. Trujillo, the assistant manager of a senior center. “The beautiful mountain around us, all those trees, it’s all charcoaled now.”
Paula Garcia fled Mora, with a population of about 800, first for Las Vegas and then Santa Fe. She said she had helped her 82-year-old father pack up his tools before escaping herself as the fire approached their tight-knit community.
“It’s a place where people call each other primos and parientes” – cousins and relatives – Ms. Garcia, 50, said. Some of her ancestors put down stakes in the area in the 1860s, moving from other parts of northern New Mexico.
Ms. Garcia, the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, is a nonprofit that works to protect the state’s 700 or so acequiasor irrigation ditches, said she attributed her community’s persistence to “pure grit.”
“We’ve lived there so long because of our querencia,” said Ms. Garcia, a term she defined as “a cultural longing, a pull, that keeps us there.”
Such ties to the land have origins in Spain’s colonization of New Mexico, which began in 1598, years before the English first settled in the Virginia colony of Jamestown. The colonists and their descendants persisted in relative isolation on the Spanish Empire’s northern fringe.
New Mexico remains the nation’s most heavily Hispanic state, with nearly 48 percent of the population claiming Hispanic or Latino heritage. The small towns, villages and ranching outposts in the counties hit by the fire, where Hispanics account for about 80 percent of the population, still defy easy classification.
So many families had previously left the area, largely for economic reasons, that they view it as a kind of homeland, or old country. In contrast to other rural areas around the United States that have leaned heavily Republican in recent elections, Mr. Biden carried San Miguel County, whose seat is Las Vegas, with 68 percent of the vote.
Until the fire arrived in late April, one of the main sources of tension in Las Vegas was a recent dispute over a proposed museum exhibition about 19th-century Hispanic vigilante nightriders who had targeted Anglo land squatters after the United States took control of New Mexico.
Relations between ethnic groups have evolved since then. But unlike other parts of the United States where Hispanics are viewed as newcomers and Anglos seek to defend their culture from demographic shifts, in northern New Mexico the roles are often reversed.
“We bought our land back in 1993, but we’re still considered outsiders compared to many of our neighbors,” said Sonya Berg, 79, a retired teacher from Texas whose home in Rociada, a town of several hundred people, was destroyed by the fire.
Still, Ms. Berg said she understood why some families remained in the area for generations, explaining that their land had been so important to her husband, who died in 2019, that his gravesite is on their fire-scorched property.
“I’m sure we’ll rebuild,” she said.
Given the fire’s erratic behavior, it is not clear when evacuees will be allowed back. Wendy Mason, a New Mexico wildfire prevention official, said it was the first time, at least in recent memory, that so many large fires were raging at once in the state. Ms. Mason also cautioned that more fires could start in the coming weeks.
“We usually do not expect much moisture until the monsoons arrive, and that’s generally not until July or August,” Ms. Mason said. Even if some rain falls, as it did in parts of the state over the weekend, it could be accompanied by lightning strikes that ignite other blazes, she warned.
“Our climate is changing, making the fire season a lot longer and more intense,” Ms. Mason said.
Still, Mr. Martinez, the state historian, emphasized that such challenges were part of the region’s history. Mora was burned to the ground, he noted, by invading American forces in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. After that episode, the community picked up the pieces and started again.
“This is not the first fire our families have dealt with,” he said.