Huge wildfire threatens this city, but can’t call for help

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For nearly two centuries, several dozen families in the small village of Chacon, New Mexico, have subsisted and built modest lives in a narrow valley known for both harsh winters and frequent droughts.

But through generations of struggle, at 8,500 feet, they’ve also stood guard over one of the most enviable views in the southern Rocky Mountains—looking south through a short gorge to the striking Sangre de Cristo Mountains holding back the green. , greater Mora Valley where about 2,000 people live. Today, however, that view is more like gazing down the barrel of a loaded gun in the form of relentless winds propelling both smoke and flames from the largest wildfire in the US into the canyon.

What’s worse, the historical community literally cannot call for help as it is on the brink of destruction.

When I visited the valley on Tuesday, the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fire complex had already burned more than 145,000 acres and hundreds of buildings. (As of Thursday morning, the total burned area had grown to more than 165,000 acres.) The burned area stretches from the edge of the Mora Valley all the way south to the greater city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, which is also home to thousands of homes. threatened by wind-driven flames.

This is day two with no phones, no internet, nothing.

Cody Vasquez, Chacon . Volunteer Fire Department

All access to the adjacent Mora Valley has been blocked for days as the community, which is also in the center of one of the country’s poorest provinces, is under a mandatory evacuation order. It has been reported that hundreds of residents initially chose to stay at home to watch over their belongings, but as the fire doubled in size over the weekend, it is believed that most have now fled to emergency shelters or to visit relatives elsewhere in the state. to stay .

New Mexico state police put up a roadblock at the northern entrance to the Mora Valley on Tuesday morning. Anyone making the long drive over a mountain pass to reach that point will have to either turn around or turn left on the 7-mile (7-kilometer) road that leads through the canyon to Chacon.

Overlooking the lower Chacon with the smoke plume from the Calf Canyon-Hermit’s Peak Fire complex in the background.

Eric Mack/CNET

For residents who have not yet fled the advancing inferno, it became more difficult this week to understand how close the danger is at any moment.

“This is day two with no phones, no internet, nothing,” Cody Vasquez told me in front of the Chacon Fire Department on Tuesday afternoon.

He and his father, Alfred, are members of the volunteer fire department. They greeted me dressed in matching yellow flame-resistant shirts just as they were about to climb into one of the department’s cherry-red fire engines and drive south to help protect property near the front lines of the fires.

The couple told me that since the fires damaged the valley’s cell tower a few days ago, the community has been shut down at the end of the long road.

“You have to drive to Sipapu to call,” Cody added.

To reach Sipapu Ski Hut from Chacon, it’s a 45-minute drive over a mountain pass and through a winding gorge, one way. Back at the roadblock, locals pause at the intersection to ask the state troopers for any fire updates before climbing State Road 518 toward the distant promise of connectivity.

The road to the center of the Mora Valley and one of the poorest provinces in the country has been blocked due to mandatory evacuation orders.

Eric Mack/CNET

Old-fashioned communication

“There are people in Chacon who have no external connection unless someone drives there,” Roger Montoya told me when I visited him at his home in Velarde on Tuesday morning.

Montoya is the state representative for the sprawling House District 40, which stretches from the Rio Grande in the north to the Colorado border and east to the Great Plains, including the entire Mora Valley and Chacon. He makes the drive to Chacon, about 90 minutes from his home, to keep the residents informed.

“It’s my duty to get in as far as I can and help spread information so that when the ‘Go’ happens, they can leave. [State Road] 518 safe.”

He says most people have already left the area, which I found out driving through. The few public gathering places in Chacon—a small credit union, post office, and church—were all closed, locked, and blacked out. Electricity has been intermittent at best. Some people were tending livestock in fields, but otherwise the only action I encountered was at the fire service.

It is possible to receive FM radio signals from distant stations in Las Vegas and the city of Raton to the north. But with access to the area virtually cut off, even regional media outlets are limited to simply repeating official fire updates from law enforcement and the Santa Fe National Forest.

In this informational void, rumors and rumors fill the vacuum. Reports on social media suggest certain beloved businesses have burned down only to be later declared invalid, and evacuees have been turned away for hours seeking shelter in the wrong locations.

“If you get on social media and start posting information that isn’t correct…it just makes my job and the jobs of others out there more difficult to provide security,” Mora County Under Sheriff Americk Padilla said on the interagency fire- Wednesday update. †

Help from above

“Communication is one of the biggest gaps,” Montoya said. “Could we consider placing a Starlink satellite over every large rural village in New Mexico’s 22 million acres of forest? Just as a backup. Why are we struggling when human lives and structures are at risk on this scale? [This is] the most serious fire event in the US right now. I think we can do better.”

SpaceX’s Starlink Internet service is available in New Mexico, but the cost of the hardware is high, starting at $599. SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk Demonstrated their ability to deploy the service in crises such as the war in Ukraine, where the service was activated and receiver kits were sent to the country after Russia invaded in late February.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For now, however, the inhabitants of Chacon and the Mora Valley have been forced to rely on the same form of communication as their ancestors – word of mouth by people walking from door to door. On Tuesday, it was local law enforcement officers and officials like Montoya himself who carried that message.

Returning from the Mora Valley on Tuesday evening, I was able to go online myself for the first time in hours and found that the mandatory “Go” evacuation order had finally been issued for Chacon as I drove back.

“I understand we’re all tense,” Deputy Sheriff Padilla said later. “Once we’re able to get people back into their homes, we’re going to let people back in and start rebuilding.”

For a moment I wondered who most of the residents received the new evacuation order from first, or if they already knew it was time to go.

Visit All Together New Mexico to support people affected by the wildfires.

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