Cerro Grande fire victims were ‘fully compensated’ decades ago. NM gov seeks the same in 2022.

Los Alamos County was made whole. Will that standard hold for the rest of northern New Mexico?

By: - May 19, 2022 5:00 am

Cerro Grande Fire aftermath and reforestation near Los Alamos, N.M. (Photo by Jann Huizenga / Getty Images)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others are calling for additional funding to compensate those who lost their homes or livelihoods due to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire, preferably an aid package that resembles the one the federal government provided in the aftermath of the Cerro Grande fire 22 years ago. 

This archived photo from 2000 shows the then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt meeting with Cerro Grande fire victim Geheah Rickman in April 2000, four months after the blaze started. (Photo courtesy FEMA)

“It’s not like we haven’t seen this before,” she said Tuesday at a news conference. “In fact, we have.”

In May 2000, a National Park Service crew lit a prescribed burn that escaped its control and ultimately destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos. In response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a whole new office designed to “fully compensate” those who suffered losses. FEMA offered cash aid in addition to the typical disaster relief provided in federally declared emergencies.

FEMA set up a website at the time specifically for Cerro Grande victims, and it published news releases showing the amount distributed. The last update, from August 2001, shows the agency awarded $115 million to about 15,000 individuals, plus about $125 million more to businesses, local and tribal governments and for other mitigation. 

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has so far displaced tens of thousands of New Mexicans and burned through over 300,000 acres. The Hermits Peak fire began as a United States Forest Service prescribed burn about 12 miles north of Las Vegas and later merged with the Calf Canyon to become the largest fire in state history. The Calf Canyon fire’s cause hasn’t been determined. 

As of Wednesday, May 18, at 5 p.m.

The Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire has burned nearly 302,000 acres. 

It is 34% contained.

President Joe Biden has declared an emergency in N.M., allowing FEMA to start providing limited funding to those who had to evacuate or who lost their homes in the fire. But Lujan Grisham, in public comments since, has said FEMA aid isn’t enough and said the federal government carries “significant liability” for its role in the fire. 

Members of the New Mexico Congressional delegation have sponsored a bill — the “Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act” — to provide compensation in addition to the FEMA help. Lujan Grisham said the money will be crucial, especially for those who lost their livelihoods, not just their homes.

“If you don’t know that you can be a rancher anymore in the context of where you’re going to graze your cattle — and we’re going to work on supporting those families to stay in that line of work — it’s a pretty heavy lift,” she said. “It’s going to have to be a whole lot of folks figuring out, How we do that? when there won’t be grazing in the areas they’re used to grazing their cattle.”

The governor said she’s confident Congress will “do the right thing here,” especially because of the Cerro Grande example. 

But Tom Ribe, author of “Inferno by Committee,” a book about the Cerro Grande fire, told Source New Mexico recently that there might be some key differences. 

Hot takes: NM pols point fingers at the feds for megafire

For one, many of the Los Alamos fire victims were Los Alamos National Laboratories employees with Ph.Ds. That made it easier for them to draw the nation’s attention and navigate the FEMA aid process. 

In the area burned by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, many of those who suffered losses are low-income. 

A 2008 socioeconomic assessment conducted by the Santa Fe National Forest found, for example, that exactly zero of the Los Alamos County residents in its assessment worked full-time on farms and had the highest per-capita incomes in the state. About one-third of those in Mora County did work on farms, however, in an area the report characterized as rural and poor. 

To apply for FEMA relief, visit DisasterAssistance.gov.

The major industries in the forest are ranching, timber harvesting, and oil and gas production, according to the assessment. Tourism was also a major moneymaker, producing more than $100 million economic output in 2004. Skiing made up a quarter of that. Ranching produced $2.6 million. 

So finding a way to reach those who were impacted and fully compensate them will potentially be a new challenge from this latest escaped prescribed burn, Ribe said. 

In light of all this, Ribe said of the folks affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire:

“They’re going to need an advocate.”


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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.