1/13 Fire Damage

Remnants of a house that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned up are surrounded by dead trees in Mora County. Pictured on Sept. 12, 2022. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is deciding how New Mexicans will go about seeking compensation after being hurt or losing property because of the massive wildfire up north last year. 

Billions of dollars are on the line, destined for families that suffered as a result of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which began as two prescribed burns ignited by the United States Forest Service. 

The deadline for submitting public comments is Friday, Jan. 13.

FEMA made some mistakes when it rolled out the first round of relief as the fire still burned, so people are wondering about how the agency will manage $3.9 billion allocated by Congress for New Mexico. The sum could have huge impact in the region — it’s about one-third of the state’s entire projected budget for the next fiscal year (around $11.99 billion as of December, according to economists with the Legislative Finance Committee).

Echoing many community members’ concerns, commenter Joe Summers on Dec. 5 took issue with unclear language on FEMA’s website.

“This is all too confusing and haphazard for victims to navigate with any confidence and certainty they will receive attention required to fully state details of their losses and receive appropriate compensation,” he wrote.

New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation last week also submitted a letter outlining changes they want to see. 

Among their concerns: Rural and tribal communities in the area rely on fishing, gaming and timber-cutting. Much of that became impossible after the fire. Compensation should cover subsistence resources, the letter states, so people can continue their traditional ways of life. 

FEMA is holding job fairs to hire people who can help others navigate the claims process or who will review claims. They should be members of the local community, the delegation said, and they should be bilingual.

The proposed rules specify that people impacted by the fire will be compensated, but substantial damage came from floods rushing over charred land, spilling out from clogged waterways, unhindered by the vegetation that would normally slow the water down or create a barrier. 

“We recommend you specifically reference flooding, mudflow, mold, and debris flow as a cause of injury and as a damage that can be compensated,” New Mexico’s representatives and senators told FEMA in their letter. 

It could also be hard for people to show that flooding was a result of the fire, they added, especially if everyone isn’t working off the same map. 

The feds have high-resolution imaging of fire damage but wouldn’t share it with someone trying to prove damage to his property, Source NM reported in November. Residents even set up their own plane flight over the burn scar to try and map the area themselves.

“FEMA should develop a simple process or map to assess whether flooding in particular areas is the result of the fire and remove the burden” from people filing claims, the delegation’s letter stated.

At public meetings about the rules for distributing the money, people who’ve lost property to the fire raised an issue with the proposal limiting compensation to 25% for lost trees. That cap is a holdover from the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 that affected people in Los Alamos, many of whom lived on smaller residential lots. 

But 22 years later, the largest fire in New Mexico history consumed 530 square miles of forested land, often used through generations for farming and ranching — or even growing Christmas trees. 

“Most residents in Mora/San Miguel depend on their trees for firewood, etc.,” Yolanda Cruz wrote in her comment for FEMA about the tree-value cap in the proposed rules. “Knowing that the trees will not return in our lifetime is a huge loss.”

A 25% limit doesn’t square with the effort that will be required to restore the environment, the delegation agreed.

“Capping compensation for reforestation at 25% of the award does not take into account the degree of damage,” the letter stated. Plus, the proposed rules say someone from FEMA would have to inspect a person’s property to decide whether trees were used for landscaping or business, they said, slowing down the process. 

The delegation also said the agency should be flexible in weighing proof of ownership. 

Some papers may have burned in the fire. Since the region is rural, and phone and internet service can still be extra spotty in the fire’s aftermath, access to public records is limited. 

In other scenarios, they wrote, land and homes in the region changed hands between family members over generations without the typical documentation.

If FEMA miscalculates and overpays someone, the proposed rules say the agency should try to get that money back. 

But this could mean that people harmed by the fire would hesitate to even try and recover damages “due to a fear that if the agency makes a mistake, they could be held liable for repayment,” New Mexico’s representatives and senators said in their letter. “FEMA has already faced significant skepticism from the community over its process and the creation of the Claims Office, and deepening those concerns does not benefit FEMA or the victims of these fires.” 

Instead, the delegation said, the agency should not try to claw back possible overpayments — or establish a short timeframe for doing so.

Notably, the D.C. officials didn’t call for FEMA to appoint an independent claims manager who hails from New Mexico, which has been a sticking point for many commenters. 

Hector Balderas, former N.M. attorney general, submitted written comments and objections on behalf of the state at the end of December, and that’s the first item listed. Balderas specified that the independent claims manager should be an attorney in the state, or a retired judge. 

“An independent claims manager will increase participation in the claims process here,” Balderas wrote. “FEMA has not yet established a strong sense of confidence in New Mexico’s citizens … ”

Angela Gladwell, the FEMA official in charge of the claims office, told Source New Mexico in mid-November that the agency had decided to move forward without bringing in an outside claims manager. She declined to comment on how that decision was made or why.

This was first published at sourcenm.com

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