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The largest wildfire in New Mexico's history continues to grow


In northern New Mexico, the largest wildfire in the history of the state continues to grow. Many of the communities burned trace their roots back hundreds of years to Spanish and Indigenous ancestors. From member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports on a distinctive culture now in jeopardy.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The little town of Mora, N.M., nestles in a green river valley between forested mountains. But now the area's been hit hard by the fire, and volunteers give out donations at a distribution center.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's some baked beans. Or you want pinto?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They got to be pinto beans.

FORDHAM: Fires destroyed homes and crops. Power and water are mostly out. People are helping each other as they can.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Your dad stopped by my house, gave me a couple of bales of hay.

FORDHAM: And volunteers have also joined federal firefighters battling what's known as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire.

CASEY BENJAMIN: It's intense just being in front of a 150-, almost 200-foot wall of flames.

FORDHAM: Casey Benjamin is just 18 years old, but he's been volunteering for years with the local fire department and says even the old-timers have never seen anything like this.

BENJAMIN: There's wind, temperature, fuel, humidity, all kinds of stuff. And it's just the perfect storm for the worst fire.

FORDHAM: The verdant national forest blanketing the mountains here now has broad charred patches that burned-over land has supported communities for centuries.

VALERIE BENJAMIN: This isn't just now. This is for generations and generations to come.

FORDHAM: This is the firefighter's mother, Valerie Benjamin, who usually works with Head Start.

BENJAMIN: It is a way of life. A lot of people make their living off our lands from raising cattle to firewood products.

FORDHAM: Her husband is a logger. Other families have permits to graze cattle on pastures which are now burned.

BENJAMIN: People are going to lose a lot or have lost a lot.

FORDHAM: These communities trace their ancestry back to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Many also say their heritage is mixed with the Indigenous people of the area. They take pride in unique traditional irrigation and architecture. Local lawmaker Roger Montoya says the Spanish spoken here is influenced by old dialects and Indigenous languages.

ROGER MONTOYA: It was a beautiful mixture that is very unique worldwide, and it's emblematic of the kind of isolation that these communities have maintained in a certain way even today. They are rich culturally and historically.

FORDHAM: But they are not rich monetarily, and with the loss of livelihood from forest destruction, Montoya fears an exodus.

MONTOYA: What they're facing is unprecedented decimation of every link they have to the land, the people, the water, the animals that they have depended on for hundreds of years. So it's an interruption that is catastrophic and heartbreaking.

FORDHAM: The fire is still growing. Incident commander Nickie Johnny says it could still burn much more of northern New Mexico.

NICKIE JOHNNY: New Mexico hasn't seen a fire of this size in this kind of fuel type. And so this fire has potential to grow twice, maybe three times the size.

FORDHAM: The fire already encompasses about 475 square miles. In the thick of the disaster, it's a challenge to think about the future.

JOSEPH GRIEGO: It's hard to grasp the change that will happen in this community.

FORDHAM: Joseph Griego is coordinating the distribution center. He tells me about speaking to a friend who lived off the forest here.

GRIEGO: He looks at the mountains and he says, you know, what am I to do moving forward? Everything that I need is gone.

FORDHAM: Even as firefighters try to save what they can in Mora, even more than trees and homes may be already lost.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE NATIONALS SONG, "APARTMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.