This article appeared first in Pro Publica
Eric Maestas didn’t have much time to spare on an afternoon in April when he stepped out of the old Memorial Middle School gymnasium with an armful of food, water and an extra pair of slippers.
The supplies were for his parents, waiting for him at a nearby campground. They’d been evacuated from their Cleveland home, threatened by what was becoming the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history. His parents were elderly, his father on oxygen. They feared their home had been consumed by flames.
Yet Maestas took a few moments to tell me, a reporter he didn’t know, what it was like to flee that home, that land, that village full of history and memories.
“Everybody was panicking,” he said, placing the slippers on top of boxes in the back seat of his sedan. “They shut down all the electricity. They shut down all the cellphones. There was nothing. And everybody was fighting to get gas and get out of there. It was pretty crazy.”
The blaze he was fleeing was the result of two planned fires, ignited by the United States Forest Service, that escaped containment lines and became the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history. The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire ultimately burned more than 340,000 acres, destroyed at least 900 structures, including 400 homes, and forced about 15,000 people to flee. Then, monsoon rains fell on the scarred earth and floods further damaged rural homes, ranches, forests, watersheds and centuries-old waterways.
As a reporter with Source New Mexico, I’ve relayed similar tales about this disaster dozens of times since that Saturday afternoon in April.
Across more than 100 articles Source New Mexico has published since that first day, we’ve kept elected officials and state and federal agencies aware that the crisis here is still unfolding. With your help, we’ve revealed how the Forest Service barely met its own requirements for one of the prescribed burns, how the Federal Emergency Management Agency delayed aid for acequias — the waterways that have irrigated the land for generations — and how FEMA denials for housing aid have hurt families.
In order to hold the federal government accountable for how it is handling a crisis it sparked, I need to hear from you about how things are going. If you’ve got a few minutes, please reach out.
I was born and raised in New Mexico. I recently moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, to dedicate all of my time to speaking to my new neighbors about the fire, the flood and the aftermath. I’ve partnered with ProPublica, a national nonprofit news organization that has provided resources and expertise to help me investigate the government’s response to the fire. I want to speak with as many of you as I can about what you’ve been through, whether you’ve gotten what you need and how the government has handled this.
The people working on this project are not lawyers, contractors or consultants who stand to make a profit off this disaster. We are journalists who will listen to you and investigate what happened.
Here’s how to reach me:
Phone: (505) 933-9013
Or you can answer a few questions on this short form so I can learn about your experience and get in touch. Thank you.
We take your privacy seriously. We are gathering these stories for the purposes of our reporting and will contact you if we wish to publish any part of your story. We are the only ones reading what you submit.
Byard Duncan contributed reporting.