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A huge wildfire threatens this city but cannot call for help

For nearly two centuries, a few dozen families have lived in the tiny village of Chacon, New Mexico, eking out a modest existence in a narrow valley known for both harsh winters and frequent droughts.

But for generations, at an elevation of 8,500 feet, they have also watched over one of the most enviable vistas in the southern Rockies — looking south through a short gorge toward the prominent Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which form the verdant, larger Mora Valley, in which about 2,000 people live. Today, however, that sight is more like looking down the barrel of a loaded gun in the form of relentless winds driving both smoke and flames from America’s largest wildfire up the canyon.

Worse still, the historic community has literally no way to call for help as it stands on the brink of annihilation.

When I visited the valley on Tuesday, the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fire complex had already burned over 145,000 acres and hundreds of buildings. (As of Thursday morning, the total area burned had grown to over 165,000 acres.) The burned area extends from the rim of Mora Valley south to the larger city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where thousands of homes are also at risk from wind-driven blazes.

All access to the adjacent Mora Valley has been blocked for days as the community, which is also at the center of one of the country’s poorest districts, is under a mandatory evacuation order. It has been reported that hundreds of residents originally chose to stay home to take care of their belongings, but since the fire doubled over the weekend most are believed to have now fled to emergency shelters or with family members elsewhere stay in the state.

New Mexico State Police enforced a roadblock at the north entrance to Mora Valley Tuesday morning. Anyone making the long drive down a mountain pass to reach this point would have to either turn back or turn left on the seven-mile road that cuts through the gorge to Chacon.

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

Eric Mack/CNET

For residents who haven’t yet fled the advancing inferno, this week has made it harder to understand just how close the danger is at any given moment.

“This is the second day of no phones, no internet, no nothing,” Cody Vasquez told me Tuesday afternoon outside the Chacon Fire Department.

He and his father Alfred are members of the volunteer fire brigade. They greeted me in matching yellow fire-resistant shirts as they were about to hop into one of the department’s cherry-red fire engines and head south to help protect properties near the frontline of the fires.

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

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

To reach the Sipapu ski lodge from Chacon, it’s a 45-minute one-way drive up a mountain pass and through a winding gorge. Back at the roadblock, local residents stop at the intersection to ask state troopers for updates on the fires before climbing State Road 518 toward the distant promise of connectivity.

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The road to the center of the Mora Valley and one of the country’s poorest districts is closed due to mandatory evacuation orders.

Eric Mack/CNET

Old-fashioned communication

“There are people in Chacon who have no connection to the outside world 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 of the sprawling House District 40, which stretches from the Rio Grande north to the Colorado border and east to the Great Plains, including throughout the Mora Valley and Chacon. He has driven to Chacon, about 90 minutes from his home, to update residents there.

“It’s my duty to continue to get in as much as possible and help spread information so they can get out when the ‘go’ happens [State Road] 518 safe.”

He says most people have already left the area, which is what I found driving through. The few public places in Chacon – a tiny credit union, a post office and a church – were all closed, locked and blacked out. Electricity was intermittent at best. Some people could be seen herding cattle in the fields, but other than that the only action I encountered was the fire brigade.

It is possible to receive FM radio signals from remote stations in Las Vegas and the city of Raton to the north. But with access to the area virtually closed, even local media is limited to simply repeating official fire reports from law enforcement and the Santa Fe National Forest.

In this information gap, rumor and hearsay fill the vacuum. Reports on social media suggest certain beloved businesses have burned down only to later become invalid and evacuees have taken hours to shelter in the wrong places.

“If you go on social media and start posting information that isn’t accurate … it just makes my job and the work of others out there more difficult to keep safe,” Mora County Deputy Sheriff Americk Padilla said Wednesday in interagency fire update .

help from above

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

SpaceX’s Starlink internet service is available in New Mexico, but the hardware costs are steep, starting at $599. SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk demonstrated it their ability to use the service during crises like the war in Ukraine, where the service was activated and receiver kits sent into the country after Russia invaded in late February.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For now, however, the residents of Chacon and the Mora Valley are forced to rely on the same form of communication as their ancestors did – word of mouth, spread by people going door-to-door. On Tuesday, it was local law enforcement and officials like Montoya himself who got that message across.

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

“I understand we’re all nervous,” Under Sheriff Padilla later said. “Once we are able to get people back into their homes, we will start letting people back in and start rebuilding.”

For a moment I wondered who most of the residents had first heard about the new evacuation order from, or if they even knew it was time to leave.

To support those affected by the wildfires, please visit All Together New Mexico.

https://www.cnet.com/science/huge-wildfire-threatens-this-new-mexico-town-but-it-cant-call-for-help/ A huge wildfire threatens this city but cannot call for help

Chris Barrese

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