‘Lots of pain’ as families lose everything in New Mexico wildfires, says parish volunteer

(OSV News) — A volunteer at a New Mexico parish told OSV News June 20 he’s seeing “lots of pain” in the faces of those displaced by massive wildfires in that state’s central region.

“There are families that have lost everything completely,” said Juan Carlos, a member of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) parish in Roswell, New Mexico. “There are families that have lost family members.”

Wildfires’ devastating impact

At least two people have been killed and thousands have been evacuated due to the South Fork and Salt fires in the state, which broke out June 17. Some 1,400 structures have been destroyed and more than 23,000 acres ravaged. Hundreds of firefighters have been battling the two blazes, the causes of which remain undetermined. By midday June 21, there was zero containment of the fire, according to the website New Mexico Fire Information.

Authorities evacuated the picturesque mountain village of Ruidoso, home to St. Eleanor Catholic Church in the Diocese of Las Cruces. OSV News has not yet received a response to its calls and emails to staff there and at St. Eleanor’s mission parish, St. Jude, which is located about 35 miles east in the town of San Patricio. The Diocese of Las Cruces, of which both churches are a part, declined to comment to OSV News.

With many of the Ruidoso evacuees now sheltering in the city of Roswell, Carlos and his fellow parishioners have been providing temporary accommodations, basic necessities and compassionate support.

Parish and community support

The parish’s adjacent Franciscan Center has opened its doors to fire victims, offering showers and serving as a hub for aid collection. The outpouring has been so extensive that the center has had to stop accepting clothing donations, and has put out a plea for containers to organize existing drop-offs.

Speaking in Spanish and English, Carlos told OSV News that he has helped to settle a total of about 34 families at the parish center and at the Encanto Event Center in downtown Roswell, whose owner — a friend of Carlos — reached out to offer the use of his space.

Firefighters, hotshots and other emergency response officials triage responses to the South Fork Fire in Ruidoso, New Mexico, June 17, 2024. (OSV News photo/Kaylee Greenlee Beal, Reuters)

“I’m giving them lunch, dinner, all the basic, needed items — toothpaste, shampoo, (a place) to bathe, towels,” he said. “They didn’t bring anything (when they evacuated). And the people in the community generously helped us with food.”

Community rallies around fire victims

Photos of the donations, which Carlos shared with OSV News, attest to how strongly the community has rallied around the fire victims — but Carlos was quick to note that he wasn’t providing images of those he’s helping, due to the severe trauma they’ve experienced.

“You can feel it when you see those faces,” he said. “They’ve lost everything.”

The remains of the Swiss Chalet Hotel and surrounding area damaged in the South Fork Fire in northern Ruidoso, New Mexico, are seen June 18, 2024. (OSV News photo/Kaylee Greenlee Beal, Reuters)

Compounding that pain, he said, is the flash flooding in Ruidoso that followed the flames on June 19.

However, Carlos did share with OSV News a short video clip of an impromptu volleyball game he had organized for those staying at the Franciscan Center — a twilight match that Carlos told OSV News was “un poco de alegría a estas personas con tanta necesidad” (“a little joy for these people in so much need”).

Faith in action

Carlos said his volunteer efforts to help the fire victims were simply an expression of his faith.

“What I do, I do for the Lord, not for myself,” he said. “Y yo sé que dónde viene mi pago. El Señor me va a remunerar.” (“And I know where my payment comes from. The Lord will reward me.”)

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