Anger toward the Forest Service has been smoldering for a century. Raging wildfires brought it roaring to life.

TIERRA MONTE — The air smells of ash and the landscape is leached of color. Spots of green punctuate the valley floor in places. But along the ridges, the powdery residue of charred trees has fallen like snow, accumulating up to 4 inches deep. These are the slices of forest where the fire burned the hottest, scorching ponderosa pines from crown to root. Once titans, they are now matchsticks. 

Pola Lopez gestures in their direction, southward toward Hermits Peak.

Uninsured homes leave New Mexicans vulnerable in areas hit by wildfires

Outside of the Glorieta Adventure Camp dining hall, 56-year-old Lisa Blackburde was having an emotion-filled conversation with a couple of other evacuees. 

Nearly three weeks ago, as the fast-moving Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire made a run toward her home near Ledoux, Blackburde heeded a mandatory evacuation order that had already been in place for days. Her boyfriend, Michael Pacheco, remained behind to save what he could. “He was a seasonal firefighter for the state,” she said, “so he knows what he’s doing.” They have a horse, a dog, 13 cows and three new calves. “And four of the cows are still expecting.” 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. If Pacheco hadn’t stayed to put out spot fires, she was sure it would have all gone up in flames.

Diminishing returns: In the San Juan Basin, small energy companies have an outsized impact

FARMINGTON — On Oct. 21, 1921, residents in Farmington heard a hissing roar as a natural gas well 10 miles upriver blew skyward — the debut of the first commercial well in the coal-bed formation known as the San Juan Basin. This stream of natural gas would transform northwestern New Mexico from a sleepy agricultural region to a community that triumphantly built itself on fossil fuels. But in October 2021, exactly one week and 100 years after this first lucky strike, a conference held to commemorate the first century of oil and gas development in the basin was decidedly less triumphant. Speakers at the San Juan Basin Energy Conference talked of a “tumultuous decade” in the basin and of the “worst downturn in the San Juan Basin’s history.” 

They had reason to be glum.

At the border of the American dream

Fidel Pérez made his way from Durango, Mexico, to Juárez and then to Chaparral, New Mexico, in 1970. He was cleaning yards and working in the agricultural fields of nearby Anthony when border patrol officials arrested him. When they asked why he had come to the United States, he replied, “Because I’m hungry! And it’s easier here to make money for tortillas than it is back in Mexico.”

Later, after he’d married an American, he returned to Chaparral. It was one of many informal communities known as colonias, a word that, in the Southwest borderlands, connotes just the kind of place where he’d landed: a rural unincorporated settlement populated almost entirely by Mexican immigrants and lacking such amenities as paved roads, electricity, water systems, wastewater treatment and decent housing. 

This story is the work of Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Anxiety, emotions and crises surge as NM students return to school

For many students in New Mexico, going back to school after months of online learning was a stormy experiment in resocialization. Reuniting with friends and peers brought joy and relief to most, but the process of reentry could also be jarring and chaotic, especially for those who felt the harshest impacts of COVID-19. 

How has that played out in the classroom? Violent outbursts and risky behaviors have become increasingly common during the return to in-person schooling, and higher numbers of students are experiencing anxiety and depression, educators report. This mirrors national findings that note an alarming rise in mental health crises among children as young as 5 years old. 

This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. “For some of these kids, going back to school was a version of culture shock,” said Martin Jones, an educational psychologist at the University of New Mexico, who studies the impact of social bonds on academic motivation.

The war in Ukraine has put Los Alamos National Lab’s nuclear-weapons mission in the spotlight

LOS ALAMOS — Los Alamos began as an “instant city,” springing from the Pajarito Plateau in 1943 at the dawn of the Atomic Age. More than 8,000 people flocked here to work for Los Alamos National Laboratory and related industries during the last years of World War II. Now the city may be on the brink of another boom as the federal government moves forward with what could be the most expensive warhead modernization program in U.S. history. Under the proposed plan, LANL will become home to an industrial-scale plant for manufacturing the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons — hollow spheres of plutonium that act as triggers for nuclear explosions. The ripple effects are already being felt.

Roads are planned to be widened to accommodate 2,500 extra workers.

Oil boom feeds NM budget, but environmental agencies left wanting

A boom in the oil and gas industry helped deliver a record-breaking $8.5 billion budget to New Mexico this year. Despite the windfall, lawmakers declined to give needed funds to the agencies responsible for regulating the increased pollution that such booms create. The state’s two primary environmental agencies, the New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, will both receive modest bumps to their budgets from the state’s general fund, but these will still fall about $9 million short of the amounts the agencies and the governor requested in the Executive Budget Recommendation. Both environment agencies are responsible for a growing amount of oversight, from enforcing pollution restrictions and food safety to mitigating wildfires and curbing impacts from climate change. Despite the increasing duties, the proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2023 calls for NMED’s budget to be nearly 5 percent lower when adjusted for inflation than it was in 2008; EMNRD’s budget is almost 13 percent lower.

New Mexico landlords tried to evict nearly 200 households whose rental assistance applications were pending

In early 2021, Albuquerque’s medical clinics were so overwhelmed by the pandemic that Deidra Alldredge couldn’t book a doctor’s appointment to renew a prescription for insulin. Her diabetes got worse. She grew dizzy and nauseous, and could barely see or think straight. Unable to clock in at her job as a telephone customer service agent for a bank, the 54-year-old woman was fired in February. Without an income, she fell behind on rent.

Section 8 tenants struggle to find homes in Albuquerque

Renee Garnett is a regular at Sagebrush Church in Albuquerque, where Sunday prayers are led by a five-piece worship band and everyone gets a chance at a better life. On Oct. 9, the 51-year-old grandmother took a seat near the front of the sanctuary, her greying hair pulled back tight, her black rectangular reading glasses resting on her forehead. She was one of the first to jump to her feet when the music swelled. Garnett had a lot to pray for.

Recreational cannabis industry sparks struggle for water rights in parched New Mexico

When New Mexico’s recreational cannabis bill was signed into law in April, Mike Hinkle and Ryan Timmermans jumped at the chance to get into the industry. The two business partners, both recent transplants from the South, bought portable buildings, seeds, grow lights and a property in the village of Carson, with a domestic well they thought they could use to irrigate their plants. In total, they invested more than $50,000. “That’s actually the most money I’ve ever had in my life,” Hinkle said. “I was extremely excited because we thought we had a shot.”

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.