A former Las Vegas lawman fought to rebuild after NM fire. He died before he could come home.
Donato Sena and his wife Maria Luisa spent a recent Monday afternoon loading furniture into the new mobile home placed on their land in Rociada, one of the areas hit hardest by New Mexico’s massive wildfire last spring.
The task was tiring for the couple, both in their 70s, and came after months of struggle to rebuild a semblance of their former lives stolen by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. They’d fought with contractors, bureaucrats, lawyers and sometimes each other as stress mounted and time stretched on. But that afternoon, Sena was happy.
“Finally, things are coming around,” Sena told his wife as they drove back to the house in Las Vegas where they’ve lived since the fire. Even though their bills were mounting and their home was far from ready, maybe they’d get to spend a night there by Christmas, they told each other.
But Sena died when they got back to where they’d been staying in Las Vegas. He collapsed as he walked toward the front gate of their home since the fire, holding bags of groceries. “I kind of knew he was already gone,” Maria Luisa tearfully recalled of the moment she rushed to hold him on the sidewalk.
The cause of death hasn’t been determined, but his family believes a heart attack caused him to fall and hit his head. His wife and daughter Nicole Sandoval said in an interview last Monday that they believe the stress of trying to rebuild played a role.
“I strongly believe that, yes,” Maria Luisa said. “Absolutely,” Sandoval added.
Sena and his family are, like thousands of others in the burn scar, still awaiting payment from a $3.95 billion fund Congress established late last year to compensate victims of the fire, which was started accidentally by the United States Forest Service. He submitted his claim more than five months ago, and now his lawyer is pushing for payment.
Meanwhile, his death underscores the high stakes of delays in compensation and the tragedy befalling the aging, rural communities severed from the land they cherish. Some of them, like Sena, may never get to return to the land where their families lived for generations.
Data from the state Department of Health shows two counties most affected by the disaster have been losing population for years, and local elected officials, including a Mora County commissioner, are concerned the slow recovery is accelerating that trend.
According to preliminary state data, San Miguel County, which contains Rociada, had 63 more deaths than births in 2022, which is when the fire began. That’s the third highest total since at least as far back as 2008. The two highest totals were in 2020 and 2021, when, at the height of the pandemic, nearly 300 more people died than were born in Mora and San Miguel counties.
As of Nov. 24, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing the compensation fund, had paid out $128 million, or a little more than 3% of the total. Most of that has been paid in recent months, and frustration has grown among fire victims now waiting more than 18 months for compensation after the fire began.
Survivors of the fire told Source NM and ProPublica that the delays leave them in limbo. Many are desperate for compensation but unsure whether they can trust FEMA after its initial disaster response last year. Few households received FEMA trailers while the agency was gearing up the claims office, and then it took too long to finalize regulations and begin to process claims, fire survivors said.
Sena’s attorney, Antonia Roybal-Mack, noted that the 74-year-old was in precarious health as he waited for money to slowly trickle out of the fund Congress created to repay people. He’d endured four bouts with cancer, most recently of the colon.
This summer, Roybal-Mack convinced a federal judge to allow her to depose Sena and five other elderly or infirm clients, an effort to preserve their testimony should they die before getting paid or suing the federal government.
“Donato had one goal and that was to make it a single night in his new rebuilt home. I think what the government did here,” Roybal-Mack said, referring to the fire and the time it’s taken for FEMA to compensate people, “is unforgivable.”
In response to her criticism, the FEMA office handling claims for fire victims offered its “deepest condolences” to Sena’s family and friends and said it would continue to work hard to compensate victims of the disaster.
Sena, whom family and friends call Frank, met his wife in high school in Las Vegas, and they just passed their 54th wedding anniversary. The couple moved into their home in Rociada in 1991, about the time he retired as the police chief in nearby Las Vegas.
They fixed up a century-old adobe outbuilding and added additional rooms over the years, where they raised two children and later held gatherings for their four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
On July 17, he sat for a deposition with his lawyers and those for FEMA. He recounted under oath seeing a massive plume of smoke through his picture window on April 25, 2022, and immediately fleeing his home with his wife and dogs. He later got a call from a sheriff’s deputy telling him his home had burned hours after they fled. “We were lucky to get out of there,” he said.
Sena also recounted his frustration with FEMA. He said he appealed denials three times before being awarded $10,000 in FEMA disaster assistance, and he grew so distrustful of a federal disaster loan program that he decided to withdraw his application. Under cross-examination by Jordan Fried, a FEMA lawyer, Sena expressed his need to return home as quickly as possible.
“My goal just this year is to get over there, and we want to live there. We want to move back,” he said, according to the deposition transcript. He wanted to get as much done as possible by the fall, he said, because winter would stall progress for months.
Staffing issues at the Claims Office have caused additional delays in Sena’s and other victims’ cases since the deposition, according to his lawyer. As of late October, the agency did not have a team of arborists on staff to evaluate tree loss assessments by experts hired by law firms, according to an email a claims reviewer sent to a law firm that was reviewed by Source NM.
Deborah Martinez, a spokesperson for the FEMA Claims Office, said the agency has not exceeded the 180-day deadline to make offers of payment, which is required by law, and she said the agency hired three arborists on Nov. 1.
In an interview two weeks before his death, Sena told Source NM that he was exhausted after being repeatedly denied by FEMA and was running out of savings while he rebuilt without any financial assistance. The stress took a toll on his marriage, but he and his wife said they found a way never to go to bed angry.
“I think the only thing that saved us is we’ve been together forever. It’s not in our interest, no? Why would we want to leave each other over this?” he told Source NM. “But that’s how, that’s how bad it’s felt sometimes. I was a cop for 46 years, and let me tell you, this has been the worst, worst time in my life.”
But with cancer in the rearview mirror, he said, he was looking forward to finally coming home.
“Hopefully I can live to at least 85. That’s a long life,” he said after listing off his relatives who lived until their 80s or 90s. “I’m not ready to go yet.”
His death leaves his wife in charge of the logistics of recovery and the prospect of returning alone. She said she feels she owes it to her husband to move into the mobile home they bought with savings, turn on the lights and take in the views from their new picture window overlooking the Rociada valley.
They positioned the new home on their property to maintain their picturesque view, like they had before the fire.
“We angled it north and south so that we could have the view to the valley, because it was so beautiful,” Maria Luisa said. “It is still beautiful.”
More than 100 people packed into the Our Lady of Sorrows Church on Nov. 13 for his funeral, where a priest urged his family and friends to be good to one another. He received an honor guard from his former police colleagues, and his coffin was draped with an American flag to honor his service in the Navy.
From there, he was laid to rest in the Rociada cemetery, just a short walk from his old home, instead of alongside his parents and brothers who are buried at the veteran’s cemetery in Santa Fe.
Like everywhere else in the area, the fire tore through the cemetery, blackening the soil, scorching trees and dumping ash on white gravestones. But Maria Luisa said it’s the only place he could be at peace.
“It’s burnt. It’s all burnt. But he’s there. We took him back to Rociada,” she said, holding back tears. “Because he wanted to go back.”