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NM fire survivors ‘who generously spoke vital to work’

In February 2023, I signed a lease on a dusty studio apartment in Las Vegas, New Mexico, just outside the burn scar of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. Based on the railroad ties that served as vigas, my new home had likely been built in the late 1800s.

The rural communities in northern New Mexico have long been wary of outsiders. More than a century ago, a band of white-capped marauders on horseback, the Gorras Blancas, rode through the countryside to fight back against the predominantly white speculators and railroad barons taking over the land. The Gorras Blancas cut through newly built fences dividing shared pastureland, known as the “ejido,” and burned piles of railroad ties. But they failed to repel the newcomers, who built Victorian homes on what became the town’s well-to-do east side.

My apartment was on the historically Hispanic, lower-income west side. I had moved there for a yearlong collaboration between my newsroom, Source New Mexico, and ProPublica to examine the area’s recovery from the fire. The federal government had accidentally triggered the blaze. Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in charge of distributing checks to compensate people. I knew some survivors wouldn’t appreciate being interviewed by someone they perceived as an outsider, even though I’m from New Mexico and have lived here most of my life. For the next year, my job was to gain their trust.

The fire had broadened divisions: between those who had suffered and those who had been spared; between those who had money to rebuild and those who had to wait for a check from FEMA; between those angry at how long it was taking to be paid and those who had taken jobs with FEMA to help process their neighbors’ claims.

I set about speaking to anyone willing to open up about the trauma of the disaster, what they saw as a painfully slow release of funds and aid, their fears about losing their culture and their realization that this place had permanently changed. That meant showing up early to meetings at high school gyms, carrying business cards and speaking with frustrated survivors until janitors turned off the lights.

And I worked the phones. Many people were reluctant to talk; some said it was too painful to discuss what they had been through.

One man pretended to speak only Spanish to get me off the phone. He taught me a Spanish phrase in a disappearing dialect: “No le busques tres pies del gato sabiendo que tiene quatro.” It means, “Don’t look for three legs on a cat knowing it has four.” A joke and a warning: Tread carefully.

People began to recognize me. Conversations reflected the randomness of this disaster, with some properties burned to their foundations and others untouched. Some people had survivors’ guilt; others nursed bitterness. Juan Ortiz, a rancher, said someone with a second home had complained about his own house being spared; the man had hoped to collect the insurance money. Ortiz was devastated over the loss of his home and livelihood. He wished he still had his father’s book collection.

The many people who generously spoke with me were vital to my work. The community paper Optic, with a print circulation of about 3,000, published the stories.

Donato Sena, an elderly man who lost his home in the hard-hit village of Rociada, told me how grueling life had been. He and others were concerned they would die before they were paid.

Sena had been through four bouts of cancer. One day in November, he collapsed while carrying groceries into his temporary home. The day he died, he was hopeful he’d be able to move into their new manufactured home on their old property by Christmas.

I arrived at a historic church to pay my respects alongside more than 100 others. As Sena’s casket was carried, I nodded in acknowledgment to the people I’d met over the past year.

After the funeral, I found a chicken roosting on my patio chair. I walked around the block, seeking her owner. I posted to a local Facebook group and four folks offered to take her in. A man who lived up the street arrived in a pickup truck. We chatted about the fire. He tucked the chicken under his arm and I got back to work.

Patrick Lohmann wrote this commentary in partnership with Source New Mexico, a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in 2023.