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Wildfire threatens ‘cultural genocide’ in New Mexico villages

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Firefighters in New Mexico begged holdout residents of a mountain village to evacuate on Sunday, before the United States’ largest active wildfire races up a valley that is their only way out.

Many have ignored requests to leave as they stayed on to defend centuries-old homes and ranches in Chacon, the village about 45 miles (72 km) northeast of Santa Fe, with a population of around 200.

As the fire rapidly burned through forest 8 miles (13 km) away, firefighters and police warned people they would not be able to see or breathe once the blaze was upon them.

“It’s coming, and it’s coming fast,” Dave Bales, the incident commander, told a briefing, adding that a lot of residents remained in Chacon and another threatened village, Guadalupita.

About 12,000 households in northern New Mexico have been told to flee the second-largest wildfire in state history, which began in part after a burn prescribed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) raged out of control on April 6.

“With winds like this, this fire can burn another 50,000 acres,” William Sandoval, one of those who left Chacon, said from an evacuation center in the nearby town of Peñasco.

The fire is advancing through forest packed with fuel after a century of USFS policy to douse blazes within hours and court-ordered bans on logging since the mid-1990s, said forest biologist Joshua Sloan at New Mexico Highlands University.

Climate change has reduced snowpacks, leaving the area parched by its worst drought in at least five centuries, research on tree rings in the nearby Jemez Mountains shows.

The so-called Hermits Peak Calf Canyon fire has consumed 176,273 acres (71,335 hectares), an area nearing the size of all five boroughs of New York City, and is 21 percent contained.

Miguel Gandert does not know whether his family’s 19th-century log home has been burned by a New Mexico wildfire, but he fears the blaze could destroy an Indo-Hispano mountain culture far older than the United States.

The wildfire is the largest now in the United States and threatens a string of villages high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where Gandert can trace roots to European and Mexican settlers as well as Native Americans.

The blaze has burned an untold number of homes in the Mora valley, and violent winds on Sunday threatened adobe mud-brick ranch houses, churches, chapels and water mills dating as far back as the early 19th century.

“It’s almost a form of cultural genocide that’s going on and the fire is the enemy,” said Gandert, a retired University of New Mexico professor who spent childhood summers fishing and helping on his family farm in the village of Mora.

Some residents’ families have been in New Mexico since the late 17th century, and more than half of Mora County, population 4,500, has stayed to defend homes, police said.

Working-class families in the communities of Holman and Cleveland used their own bulldozers and machinery to scrape fire breaks alongside firefighters, said Gabriel Melendez, who was born in Mora.

They are driven by “querencia,” or love of place, grounded in a religious sensibility for land they pray for at Catholic churches and chapels known as “moradas,” said Melendez.

“You’re losing inheritance, you’re losing the value of these homes,” said Melendez, a 69-year-old retired American studies professor whose nephew stayed in Holman. “People will rebuild, and they’ll work to retie the fabric of this torn culture, but it’s a big challenge.”

Those who have evacuated feel devastated, said Patricia Marie Perea, whose relatives left San Miguel County for Albuquerque.

“Three hundred years of ancestry is there in my family,” said Perea, adjunct professor in Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico. “All of that makes it hard, if not impossible to leave.”

CULTURAL GENOCIDE

Miguel Gandert does not know whether his family’s 19th-century log home has been burned by a New Mexico wildfire, but he fears the blaze could destroy an Indo-Hispano mountain culture far older than the United States.

The wildfire is the largest now in the United States and threatens a string of villages high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where Gandert can trace roots to European and Mexican settlers as well as Native Americans.

The blaze has burned an untold number of homes in the Mora valley, and violent winds on Sunday threatened adobe mud-brick ranch houses, churches, chapels and water mills dating as far back as the early 19th century.

“It’s almost a form of cultural genocide that’s going on and the fire is the enemy,” said Gandert, a retired University of New Mexico professor who spent childhood summers fishing and helping on his family farm in the village of Mora.

Some residents’ families have been in New Mexico since the late 17th century, and more than half of Mora County, population 4,500, has stayed to defend homes, police said.

Working-class families in the communities of Holman and Cleveland used their own bulldozers and machinery to scrape fire breaks alongside firefighters, said Gabriel Melendez, who was born in Mora.

They are driven by “querencia,” or love of place, grounded in a religious sensibility for land they pray for at Catholic churches and chapels known as “moradas,” said Melendez.

“You’re losing inheritance, you’re losing the value of these homes,” said Melendez, a 69-year-old retired American studies professor whose nephew stayed in Holman. “People will rebuild, and they’ll work to retie the fabric of this torn culture, but it’s a big challenge.”

Those who have evacuated feel devastated, said Patricia Marie Perea, whose relatives left San Miguel County for Albuquerque.

“Three hundred years of ancestry is there in my family,” said Perea, adjunct professor in Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico. “All of that makes it hard, if not impossible to leave.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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