As wildfire roared like a train near the humble home where he was raised and now lives, Johnny Trujillo didn’t run away.
Firefighters battled the blaze and helped prevent his home from going up in flames, but they eventually had to move on, said Trujillo, who stayed behind and put out spot fires around his property to fend off a flare-up.
“If I would’ve left, my house would’ve burned,” he said, pointing to the scorched vegetation near his doorstep.
Just a few feet away, his sister’s house — two mobile homes merged into one — burned to the ground.
Trujillo, 53, is among as many as a few hundred residents of Northern New Mexico who ignored the state’s mandatory evacuation orders, primarily to defend their homes as the wind-driven Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire, the largest blaze in the nation, continues to burn.
While many area residents heeded the state’s warning and fled, Trujillo and others had to make a risky choice: stay and fight, or leave and face the possibility of losing everything they own. The Mora area is peppered with luxury homes, but a lot of people survive off the land and don’t have fire insurance.
The median household income in Mora County is $29,458 — nearly $22,000 less than New Mexico’s median household income of $51,243, according to census data. One in 5 people in the county lives in poverty, the data shows.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Get out,’ but for some people, if they got out and they lost their home, they lose everything,” said Joseph Griego, a Mora native who is the director of the Mora/Colfax Head Start preschool and child services program for low-income families.
“When you have two cows or three cows at home and goats and chickens and animals to feed and that’s your livelihood, to lose that, you’d lose everything,” he said. “I mean, they would lose everything — and how do you recover from that?”
‘We have to do whatever we can’
James Atencio, 73, whose family has been in Mora since the 1850s, said he and his wife packed up pictures and important documents in case they had to make a run for it.
The couple, along with one of their sons, doused smoldering bales of hay and other spot fires all night long.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” he said. “My wife is from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. We’ve been married 40-some years, and we just decided we have to do whatever we can to save our property.”
Atencio said authorities urged him and his wife to evacuate.
“We had several people, Forest Service officials, who said, ‘You need to evacuate.’ ”
His son, who works for the Bureau of Land Management, told him, “Dad, you don’t have to go unless you’re in imminent danger.”
“But the thing about it is we were in imminent danger,” Atencio said with a laugh.
He lost a cord of wood and bales of hay, but his home is still standing and his livestock survived. He called the experience “the scariest thing” he’s ever been through.
“We were celebrating, but after we went down the road and saw the devastation — so many people that we knew down the road, so many people who lost everything,” he said. “It’s so sad.”
Neighbors helping neighbors
Griego, along with his brother Jason Griego and others, started a food and supply distribution center in the Head Start building in the center of town that has served as a lifeline for residents who stayed behind and don’t have power or running water. The outpouring of support has been tremendous, Joseph Griego said.
In most instances, volunteers pack food and supplies into boxes and then drop them off at volunteer fire stations for residents to pick up.
In some cases, volunteers drop off boxes at residents’ homes. In no situation is a volunteer placed in harm’s way, Joseph Griego said.
The distribution center, which is also providing food and supplies to firefighters, is not sanctioned, but authorities have not shut it down.
Organizers have been working in tandem with law enforcement to deliver supplies. But they also bypass roadblocks if they need to.
“There’s five different ways to get out of Mora County,” Joseph Griego said, including some that avoid police roadblocks.
Volunteer firefighter William Romero said the community is “very united,” and neighbors have been helping neighbors deliver food and water and take care of livestock.
Although communication is limited, people who evacuated the area have been reaching out to those who didn’t leave.
“Everybody was encouraged [to evacuate] numerous times,” he said. “Some just flat-out said absolutely not until [the fire] was at their doorstep. There’s a couple, probably, that were forced to leave that didn’t want to leave. As far as I know, we have lost some structures, but I don’t believe we’ve lost any life.”
While some would consider residents refusing to evacuate stubborn or even foolish, others see their decision to stay as a reflection of the independence and pride of Northern New Mexicans.
Romero said area residents are strong-willed and adamant.
“It’s a way of life, and it’s the way they were brought up,” he said. “It’s part of our heritage. This is ours. This place runs in our veins. We’re not going to give it up without a fight.”
‘A humanitarian aid issue’
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said earlier this week she didn’t know how many residents have stayed behind. His deputy chief of staff estimated the number at 300.
“The answer, for me, is too many,” the governor said, adding there’s a misconception mandatory evacuations are evictions.
“We do no such thing,” she said. But, she said, the call for an evacuation, based on the opinions of local experts, emergency managers and law enforcement leaders, means “it’s no longer safe for us to be in, and it’s no longer safe for you to be there. That means an ambulance can’t get to you, that when power is either lost because of the winds or cut off because it’s a fire hazard, we’re not in a position to provide support.”
The decision by some residents not to evacuate has created “a very damaging emotional situation” for their families “and for a governor and other local elected leaders who are worried about those families that we cannot adequately support because they have chosen to stay home,” she said.
“I have no doubt that we have people without power who are on oxygen,” Lujan Grisham said. “I have no doubt we have individuals who are running out of food and water, and it is a terrible tragedy.”
Albuquerque attorney Antonia Roybal-Mack, who grew up in Mora, and state Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, who both have been helping to coordinate aid efforts for residents affected by the wildfire, said they don’t condone decisions to ignore evacuation orders.
Montoya urges those who stayed to have a plan for leaving if the situation becomes dire.
But he and Roybal-Mack also see a need to ensure those residents have the supplies they need to stay alive.
Roybal-Mack has been organizing online meetings with various stakeholders to determine the needs of all area residents, including those who didn’t evacuate.
“This is truly a humanitarian aid issue,” she said. “The people who haven’t left, they’re not going to leave. So guess what? We need to keep them alive, either way. It doesn’t mean their lives don’t matter.”
She added, “We can’t judge their decisions because we don’t know their reasons. They’re still humans who need our help. That’s the bottom line.”
Montoya has been organizing food drives and spending some nights with constituents in shelters.
Some refused to leave, he said. “These people want to see the flames on their doorstep and then they’re going to get out, and that is difficult. That is painful to navigate because how can you rip someone from their home if it’s their personal choice to not leave? … Every plea I made to every single person was, ‘Tell me your plan. I need to know that you’re leaving.’ That’s always been my message.
“But in the interim, we were feeding people because they had to survive.”
Montoya told participants in a stakeholder meeting Tuesday he was having difficulty getting past police roadblocks with food and supplies. Police were asking for a stamp of approval from the Governor’s Office.
Joseph Griego said the government shouldn’t be blocking efforts to provide humanitarian aid.
“It’s kind of funny, and I’m not trying to pick on anybody or take sides or anything — I’m not that person — but you allow [livestock] inspectors in to go feed cattle and horses and dogs and cats, but you won’t allow food to come in? I can’t wrap my head around that. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
In addition to food and water, Roybal-Mack and others say residents who stayed behind need fuel and generators.
“The old people said if we could get them coffee, they would be grateful,” she said. “Potatoes, eggs, tortillas. Canned food, dog food, cat food and then Glucerna and Ensure are things that people can [drink] without electricity. Those are things that we really want to try to help with.”
Trujillo, whose sister’s home burned down, said he’s in desperate need of a generator. He borrowed one that burned out and has since borrowed a second one to keep food in two freezers and a refrigerator from spoiling.
“I owe now for that one,” he said, pointing to the broken-down generator. “Hopefully that other one don’t blow out.”
Trujillo said he knew the risk of staying behind after working as a wildland firefighter for 15 years.
For some residents affected by wildfire, difficult decisions have to be made, he said. “I consider myself one of the lucky ones that stood to save my house.”
Atencio said he questioned whether he made the right decision to stay when he first heard the fire rumbling nearby. But he said he probably would have lost at least some structures on his property if he had left — and if he had not had the help of one of his sons.
“I know this barn would’ve gone because I pulled a board out from inside it that was burning, and the corrals were burning,” he said. “I think we might’ve lost everything, but I don’t know for sure. Only God knows.”