Land and heritage at forefront of Chilili response

Village residents clustered around a slideshow of their firefighting effort. Photo by Leota Harriman.

Chilili threw a party for the firefighters who stayed behind to protect the village this weekend, where some of the residents spoke about the experience and the aftermath of the Dog Head Fire.

It’s a tightly-knit community where everyone seems to be related to everyone else—with conversations breaking off frequently to greet those relatives, older and younger.

It’s an emotional subject, and the wounds left by the fire and its aftermath are still fresh, as rains have been falling in the area ever since the fire, leading to frequent flooding.

And the multiple agencies involved—from Torrance County and the Chilili Land Grant to the federal government including the Forest Service and FEMA—makes all aspects of rebuilding and recovery difficult and time-consuming.

Still, the crowded event Saturday night was a celebration: A celebration of the fact that a handful of volunteers saved every home in the village, and that no lives were lost when the Dog Head Fire tore through the area in June.

Herman Ortiz was greeted by seemingly everyone as “Uncle Herm” at the party. He said the tiny village where only a few hundred people now live has “never seen anything of that magnitude happen here in years,” adding, “Nature took over. Nature did its own thing.”

“Nature took over. Nature did its own thing.”

He said the community has always been there to help each other, after the land grant nearly faded away during Dust Bowl years. Three families stayed behind, Ortiz said, including his own father.

It’s important to villagers to protect the heritage of the land grant, he said, adding that Reyes Tijerina “sparked a little fire going” in the village in the 1960s. “He went to Tierra Amarilla and then he came here. … He opened our eyes. A lot of people got involved in it that are older than me.”

In the 1930s there were 4,800 people in Chilili, Ortiz said, and the town had a post office. “Here we are—we built it back.”

Fernando Gutierrez, Jr. is another Chilili resident who stayed behind to fight the fire after evacuation orders were given. “We were trying to save our family, our livelihood,” he said. “We couldn’t save our mountain because that was already all burnt. Just our homes. I don’t know what to tell you. All I know is I was in charge of the water bus. I was the chief of the Chilili Hot Shots,” he laughed.

The only thing that could draw Gutierrez off the land grant was the birth of his son June 18, just four days after the fire broke out. After his family was released from the hospital, Gutierrez returned to Chilili, where he said he had a tough time getting back into the village.

The county has distributed sandbags to residents, but Gutierrez said they still had not gotten erosion control baskets. Meanwhile a robust monsoon season has blanketed the area in rain.

He said that he and the others who stayed behind cut down trees and other vegetation close to people’s homes, and when the fire threatened too close, they would take the “water bus” and wet down homes and yards ahead of the blaze.

“The slurry bombers helped us,” he said. “That really helped. We just stayed and protected our land.”

The aftermath of the fire, flooding, has been “pretty bad,” Gutierrez said, adding that villagers are now “waiting for some baskets to the erosion areas full of sand.” Homes near two arroyos which converge in the village are in danger of flooding, he said.

The county has distributed sandbags to residents, but Gutierrez said they still had not gotten erosion control baskets. Meanwhile a robust monsoon season has blanketed the area in rain.

He added, “This is going to be a problem for years, until the vegetation comes back. We can’t reseed it right now—it will just wash down.” He said most of the debris has already washed off the side of the mountain into the arroyos.

State Sen. Ted Barela and his wife Janice attended the party. “It was truly one for all and all for one,” Barela said of the village’s firefighting effort.

He said when the radio call came in that “some of the people weren’t going to go out,” he came into the area with the sheriff’s department, where they found the men from the village prepared for the fight. “We drove right up this road here and all those guys had handkerchiefs over their nose and mouth because the smoke was so bad. Some were wearing hard hats—everybody was protected. … They had a tractor going. These guys were busting out the work. Nobody was going to let their neighbor down, their family down, their uncle, their cousin. It was about protecting everybody.”

Asked about the erosion control baskets, Barela said it has been “a little frustrating” because supplies like that have been slow in coming. “Here we are eight weeks after the fire. Eight weeks,” he said. “And we still have agencies doing studies of the flows of water, where it’s coming from, where it’s going to go. You’ve got an arroyo right there—we know it’s going to flow there.”

Barela said as a state senator he would like to do more, but the multi-jurisdictional nature of the response, along with a federal procurement process, means the response is slow.

While Barela said the baskets Gutierrez mentioned had arrived a day earlier, he said, “But you know, we’re restricted by yet another agency. … Whenever this water comes down, and it’s coming down with silt, is it plugging up the ports that go to the aquifer? We don’t know. Yet we’re sitting on our hands watching it happen.”

Barela said as a state senator he would like to do more, but the multi-jurisdictional nature of the response, along with a federal procurement process, means the response is slow.

Asked what recourse the village has, Barela answered, “I don’t know the answer to that. I wish I did. I’d be jumping up and down trying to help them.”

Rose Gutierrez is an aunt to Fernando Jr., and has lived in Chilili all her life. She’s been married for 61 years and has nine children.

“We come together—we’re always together,” she said. “Now that this fire was on, it was a disaster. We came together and we all tried to help each other as much as we could. The firefighters and all the people and all the prayers, that was really, really great,” she said.

Rose Gutierrez said that a cross made of railroad ties on the side of the hill had been spared even though the fire came within a few feet of it; she said another cross in the village had been totally spared, too, with the cross shining white while surrounded by the blackened landscape.

She and others felt that God saved the village from destruction.

“Everybody survived, thanks to God. … By God’s hand, some of the houses came very close to being burned down, but nobody was hurt, all the firefighters and helpers, no houses burned and everything is great afterwards,” she said.

She said the response was “like a community should be” and said she is still thankful for everything that the surrounding areas have done for the fire victims, including the party, which she said was organized by Stanley and Michele Vielma and Pat Martinez.

Juanita Lucero is another lifelong resident of Chilili, and said, “This land has been in our families for hundreds of years and we’ve had all of our relatives and our family fight for it and make sure it was saved for us, and our children, and our children’s children—that they can call their own, and this fire almost destroyed it.”

Lucero said she is very grateful for those people who risked their own lives, “not only for our homes but for our land,” adding, “Not many people are willing to do that.”

Her own children, she said, learned from the experience. “They know they have people they can depend on no matter what. We can depend on each other, and we’re going to fight for each other, and nothing’s going to come between that. … Not one house burned down in our community and everyone had a home to come back to. There may be smoke damage but we’re happy to clean that smoke damage and come home.”

The only thing people in the village need now, Lucero said, is prayer. “Of course we have flood warnings and we don’t have our trees to protect us any more,” she said. “Prayers is what we need.”

“So speaking of the future, even the young generation saw how and what needs to be done in time of tragedy,” Barela said. “In time of tragedy you don’t tuck tail and run, you muster up and you work. And you have each other’s back. That’s what I’m most proud of. I think the elders of the community really showed that—they’ve passed that on to another generation, so I love it.”

As a presentation with slides of the firefighters was shown at the event, many people clustered around the wall where it was projected—cheering, clapping and stomping their feet on the wooden floor at the Rodeo Sala.

Many others, though, stayed back. Stanley Vielma, for example, said the memories were still too fresh and too emotional for him to want to watch the presentation. His wife Michele agreed.