Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

No progress in sight 10 months after Chimayó post office fire

CHIMAYÓ — The walls of the post office are caved in, a mess of charred wood and mangled metal. The blue drop box for mail sits askew out front, unused now.

With the exception of the metal fencing, the Chimayó post office looks almost exactly like it did 10 months ago when ashes dried from a Valentine’s Day fire.

That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Amid arguments over responsibility for recovery from the fire, neither the property owner nor U.S. Postal Service officials could provide a timeline for demolition of the building or for rebuilding a permanent structure on the site.

The postal service says they’re not planning to look for another property in the community.

A fence surrounds the burned building that once held Chimayó’s post office. The post office was destroyed by a fire on Feb. 14, 2023. (Photo by Gabrielle Porter for Source NM)

Behind the scenes, Rio Arriba County officials tried to nudge the property’s owner — Tom Workman of Arizona — to action, without much result.

It’s been a source of frustration for local residents upset that the burned building remains untouched. They are now picking up letters from a pair of trailers in a Chimayó parking lot, and driving miles down the high winding mountain road to get packages in Santa Cruz.

“It’s like, go find another piece of property,” said Chimayó resident Melissa Haid. “Put your hand in your pocket and give us a building.”

Fire’s cause unclear

The Feb. 14 fire appears to have started somewhere near the bathroom and furnace area of the U.S. Post Office building, according to a report issued by the New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s Office and obtained through New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act. 

Investigators are unsure of the fire’s source and ignition material, the report said. The fire marshal’s office did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.

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No one was injured in the fire, but the building was destroyed and made unusable.

That’s a problem for Chimayó and surrounding communities, where about 800 households have a post office box, and where most people can’t get mail service to their homes.

Immediately following the fire, Chimayó’s mail service was shunted nearly 6 miles down the road to Santa Cruz.

For eight months, it stayed that way.

In late October, the U.S. Postal Service opened two mobile units in Chimayó near La Arboleda Senior Center — trailers where the Chimayó postal staff could provide limited service.

“We’re getting our mail out of basically an ice cream truck,” Haid said.

Residents still have to go to Santa Cruz for packages, which sometimes means two trips in a day to pick up mail.

‘No idea’ when demolition will start 

Demolition has yet to begin on the burned-out building.

Property owner Workman, a Flagstaff resident who said he also owns a home further north in Questa, told Source NM he has “no idea” when he might move forward with demolition.

Workman, who said he bought the property in 2020, said asbestos was discovered in the building after the fire. While a report Workman sent to the county only showed asbestos in the window glazing, its presence could make cleanup a more costly process.

Kate Salazar, a lifelong Chimayó resident, stands in the parking lot of La Arboleda Senior Center after coming to pick up her mail on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Photo by Gabrielle Porter for Source NM)

Workman said in his view, the fire started on the post office’s watch. When asked if he believes the U.S. Postal Service should pay for demolishing and rebuilding the structure, Workman would only say he wants the agency to “acknowledge” their role.

In a petition filed in federal court asking a judge to allow deposition of postal workers, Workman’s attorney said he has lost more than $1 million as a result of the fire.

“I lost 4,000 square feet, of which 1,000 square feet I leased to the post office,” Workman told Source New Mexico.

The U.S. Postal Service says it is Workman’s responsibility to clean up the burned building. Postal spokesman Rod Spurgeon said U.S.P.S. currently has no plans to look for another site to house the Chimayó post office.

“We are encouraging the building owner to finalize rebuilding plans with firm deadlines,” Spurgeon wrote in an email. “We do still hold the lease to the site, therefore we are not looking at alternative structures at the time. As the landlord is responsible for rebuilding the structure, we’re not able to offer more information on the rebuild process.”

Meanwhile, the postal service’s attorneys are fighting Workman’s petition in court, arguing that postal workers should be shielded from being deposed. 

The litigation remains ongoing.

County involvement

So far Rio Arriba County has not taken any steps to condemn the old post office or to force demolition to begin.

Emails obtained by Source NM under an Inspection of Public Records Act request show county employees pushing Workman as early as July to take steps to clean up the site.

One email to Maestas from a former county employee in late July noted that Workman had been accruing fines of $300 per day since May 24 because of the lack of progress. By July 28, the email said, he had racked up nearly $20,000.

“He informed (a county code enforcement officer) he is suing USPS,” the email to Maestas said. “We told him, that is irrelevant and he needs to get the property cleaned up ASAP. This has been a nuisance to the community of Chimayó since February!”

Workman later built a chain-link fence around the site, according to the county.

Rio Arriba County Manager Jeremy Maestas said in an interview on Dec. 1 the county has not yet taken any further steps in part because Workman had told them he was planning to sue the postal service. Maestas said they are looking at possible actions they could take to spur the clean-up along.

“Right now we’re exploring all of our available options,” Maestas said.

Maestas said he knows community members are upset.

“I think it’s extremely concerning that the property owner has done very little to nothing to remedy the situation,” he said. “It is on the county’s radar. We’re not ignoring it or putting it on the back burner.”

Maestas said any decision will be put on hold until the county’s new planning and zoning director comes on board. That person is supposed to start work on Dec. 18.

‘I miss our post office’

Chimayó area residents say they’re upset about the situation.

Kate Salazar, of Chimayó, said she’s having to find ways to schedule visits to the Santa Cruz post office before it closes while still handling pick-ups for her grandchildren — a headache she only expects to get worse as Christmas gets closer.

“So I pick up my mail here,” said Salazar on a recent afternoon outside the mail trailer. “Then I still have to drive to Santa Cruz. … Kids order everything online anymore.”

Randy Baca, a lifelong Chimayó resident, said he is making the drive to Santa Cruz for packages once or twice per week. While it’s just over five miles down the road from the old post office, Baca said between the drive and dealing with the line at the now-far more crowded Santa Cruz post office, he usually ends up spending about 90 minutes on the trip.

“I miss our post office,” Baca said. “We need to get our post office back.”

Truchas resident Ernie Martinez, who worked for years for Los Alamos National Lab, said he comes to town about three times per week to check for mail, especially for correspondence related to an illness he said he got while working at the facility.

Richard Trujillo stands in Trujillo’s Weaving Shop in Chimayó on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2023. Trujillo said the shop, which he co-owns with his brother and sister, ships a lot of goods using the U.S. Post Office. They now have to take packages down to Santa Cruz to ship, which costs more time and gas. (Photo by Gabrielle Porter for Source NM)

“It’s been real hard,” Martinez said of the new set-up. “It’s nice when you have a key and you can go in and get your own mail.”

Liz Gold, a Chimayó resident, said waiting outdoors for mail is just going to get harder in coming months for the community, which includes many elderly people.

“We all have to stand out in the parking area in the cold,” she said. “We’re headed into winter.” 

Residents say they don’t understand why the old building hasn’t at least been torn down.

“It’s certainly a glaring reminder” of the fire, said Richard Trujillo, co-owner of Trujillo’s Weaving Shop in Chimayó who regularly drives to Santa Cruz to ship products from his shop to out-of-town customers. 

Congressional support

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have weighed in, urging U.S. Postal Service leaders to find a solution.

This summer, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich wrote to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, urging him to find a way to restore service in Chimayó.

Luján said in a written statement last month that the temporary trailers are not enough.

Leger Fernández told Source NM that she shares local residents’ frustrations.

“We need to remember that post offices play multiple roles in a community,” she said. “They are a community gathering place.”

Leger Fernández, whose office is planning a community meeting involving U.S. Postal Service officials, said she believes the agency should find a new site.

“The landlord has taken no action to clean up the site to rebuild,” Leger Fernández said. “They need to move on from him and they need to move to a new location that works for everybody. … They must move forward on building a new post office, and they need to do it right away.”

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