Biden: Feds will pay all costs from the massive wildfire in northern NM — for now

‘We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again,’ president says

By: - June 13, 2022 5:00 am
President Joe Biden greets Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell at the steps of Air Force One at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in June for a visit related to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

President Joe Biden greets Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell at the steps of Air Force One at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque in June for a visit related to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

President Joe Biden on Saturday said the federal government would pay the whole bill for the ongoing Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, including repairs to homes, farms and businesses damaged by fires, and temporary housing.

“I’m thinking about what you’re thinking,” he said. “We have a responsibility to help this state recover, to help the families who have been here for centuries.”

As of Sunday, June 13, at 3:30 p.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire had burned more than 320,000 acres. 

It was 70% contained.

Biden said he is allowing all of the costs to be reimbursed. He amended his disaster declaration for New Mexico to increase the federal share from 75% to 100% for removing debris and to include “emergency protective measures,” like direct aid for all eligible costs for the first 90 days of the fire burning under the Stafford Act.

That means the government will pay people outright, rather than offering financial assistance like loans.

The act allows the president to cover rent and utilities for displaced people and families who find new places to rent, and to cover the repair or replacement of private homes or private roads destroyed or damaged by the fire.

But crucially for many of the people displaced during the disaster, the Stafford Act only allows federal money to cover the construction of temporary housing and not permanent housing. This aspect of it has been criticized in other states after they experienced their own disasters.

The declaration does not go beyond the 90-day period — a bridge while Congress tries to pass a bill that would require FEMA to establish a claims office where people could apply for more kinds of help for longer, according to the White House.

Other emergency measures now paid for in full include equipment and supplies for responders, traffic control and shelter for evacuees, for instance, along with the expense of putting firefighting resources like fire engines and aircraft in place before critical fire weather began.

Several people who applied for assistance from FEMA before the president’s visit told Source New Mexico FEMA application centers were overrun, and people were turned away initially. Others said they’d been denied or know someone who was denied. They received letters saying “DENIED” in big font across the top, though further down the page, they might see that the rejection was preliminary or only for a certain funding source, and that they had 60 days to appeal. 

Biden said FEMA will call anyone who was denied assistance and walk them through their next steps.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and federal elected officials wait for President Joe Biden to land at Kirtland Air Force Base on Saturday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

He said he and members of Congress understand the federal government must be more agile overall as it helps states recover.

“That’s why I have no reluctance to do everything we possibly can to meet all of New Mexico’s needs and stay as long as it takes to meet those needs,” Biden said.

Since last week, federal emergency food assistance became available for thousands of New Mexicans impacted by wildfires, including anyone living in Colfax, San Miguel and Mora counties, and some parts of Valencia and Lincoln counties. The last day to apply for that aid is today.

The U.S. Forest Service about two weeks before Biden’s visit claimed responsibility for igniting both of the blazes that merged to become one big fire.

On April 6, a Santa Fe National Forest personnel lit what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn in the area of Las Dispensas, but it grew beyond their control to become the Hermits Peak fire. The burn boss followed the 2018 plan for the prescribed burn — but only partially.

Investigators also found that a pile burn the same federal agency conducted in January left embers smoldering beneath the surface through three winter snowstorms. They reignited in April to become the Calf Canyon Fire.

Biden said he’d seen some of the wreckage before his plane touched down on the hot tarmac in Albuquerque on Saturday. 

He left Los Angeles on Saturday morning where he was attending the Summit of the Americas.

Before landing at Kirtland Air Force Base, Air Force One flew over the still burning Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in and around Las Vegas, N.M., according to the plane’s flight path and an Associated Press reporter who was aboard.

When Biden landed, he briefly met with many of the top state and federal officials from New Mexico: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, and Congressional Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury.

He also spoke with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who said on May 17 that FEMA aid is “not meant to make individuals whole.”

Inside a National Guard base about an hour’s drive north near Santa Fe that afternoon, Biden said the burn scar left by Hermits Peak “looks like a moonscape.”

“We flew the perimeter of the fire,” he told about 60 emergency officials, the New Mexico congressional delegation and state lawmakers. “It’s an astounding amount of territory.”

Mora County residents in the week leading up to the president’s visit said he should see the damage up close on the ground.

Two candidates for a district seat in state House that represents most of the region scorched by the fire each said global warming is contributing to wildfires getting worse, and that it’s a reason to transition away from fossil fuels.

Outgoing N.M. Rep. Roger Montoya said the devastation presents an opportunity to create green jobs to reforest the burned landscape and turn the burned wood into timber.

Lujan Grisham, pointing to climate change, has said the Forest Service should add the “vapor pressure deficit” to its models used to evaluate when it’s safe to do controlled burns. Vapor pressure deficit, an alternative to relative humidity, allows burn bosses to evaluate how much moisture is in plants, soils and fire fuels.

The Forest Service announced in May it would halt all prescribed burns for three months as it reviews protocols and decision-making. Biden said the federal government is taking steps to prevent similar fires.

“We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

President Joe Biden exits Air Force One at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque on Saturday. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.