Rayyah, the 3-year-old daughter of Kathryn Mahan and Jamie Knutson, sits on the steps of their home destroyed April 12 by the Hermits Peak fire. FEMA initially deemed this home “safe to occupy” as a reason behind to deny an aid application, but later changed course. (Photo courtesy Kathyrn Mahan)
Less than a week after a prescribed burn escaped from a crew near Hermits Peak, the wildfire ripped across an area about four miles northeast and destroyed the home Kathryn Mahan and her husband built in 2015 and have lived in since.
On April 12, the 400-square-foot home was reduced to a pile of ash and scrap metal, despite the family’s efforts to create a buffer between the house and the dense, untreated forest nearby. Gone with it were years of memories, furniture, books and precious pottery from Mahan’s late great-aunt that she hoped would be an heirloom.
As of Tuesday, June 28 at 6 p.m.
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has burned 341,735 acres.
It is 93% contained.
Given its proximity to the burn site and the fire behavior in that first week, the home at 10 Forest Road 637 in Las Dispensas was almost certainly the first casualty of at least hundreds consumed by the biggest fire in the state’s recorded history, according to Mahan and official statements from the time. The house was destroyed just six days after the prescribed burn escaped containment lines April 6, about 12 miles north of Las Vegas.
Mahan, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter were forced to find other places to stay. During that time, they also sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which arrived in the area following a disaster declaration by President Joe Biden.
FEMA has not helped her family, however, and provided four apparently inaccurate reasons for denying them aid. The denials raise questions about whether there could be widespread discrepancies in addresses FEMA uses to verify ownership.
Mahan echoed a criticism that the agency is creating unnecessary barriers by issuing automated denial letters that require appeals. She also stressed that everyone at FEMA she’s spoken with has been courteous and earnest in their efforts to help.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham previously criticized the automated denials as “demoralizing” for those who have already been through a lot. As of June 14, about 30% of relief applicants had gotten denial letters, a FEMA official said at the time, often because they submitted insufficient documentation. She stressed that applicants were still eligible after an appeal.
The agency did not respond to a request to provide updated figures Tuesday.
In Mahan’s case, her family filed an application to FEMA on May 5. Two days later, a FEMA inspector arrived. And on May 8, her family received a denial letter from FEMA, with “ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED” written in bold letters near the top.
FEMA officials gave three reasons — and, in a phone call this week, a fourth reason — about why her family was not eligible for aid. They are:
- The home is safe to live in,
- The home is not their primary residence,
- The ownership is not verified,
- And, this week in a phone call, the home is a rental.
However, FEMA is wrong on all fronts, according to Mahan and documents she’s provided to both FEMA and Source NM. For one, the home is a pile of rubble. And the family has lived in the home as a primary residence since building it in 2015. It’s never been rented out.
“I think we could probably call and push them on it more, but we get a little bit frustrated,” Mahan told Source New Mexico about the errors. “And I wouldn’t say we gave up, but we definitely stepped back.”
On Monday, Mahan’s husband filed an appeal notice.
“We appeal because our home is gone,” Jamie Knutson wrote. “It was completely destroyed by the fire.”
FEMA spokesperson Dasha Castillo told Source New Mexico on Tuesday that said damage assessments are recorded when inspectors meet with applicants and that sometimes the “safe to occupy” determination is based on information provided by applicants. FEMA also regularly reviews assessments to ensures damages are being correctly recorded, she said.
She added that the agency could not comment on individual cases, but she shared FEMA instructions that note the importance of including proof of ownership and the correct address.
County address confusion
One possible reason for the ownership not being verified has to do with the address, Mahan said.
About a week after their home burned, Mahan and her husband spoke with FEMA officials at makeshift shelters at Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas and another shelter in Glorieta, who ensured they were notified about when online aid forms were available.
They tried to apply to FEMA then using an online form, but the system didn’t recognize their address, she said. They called FEMA on the phone and were able to apply for aid that way, but the inspector later told them that the application would probably be denied.
Why? According to FEMA, Mahan and her family live at 10 Iron Colt Road in Las Dispensas, not 10 Forest Road 637.
Within the last few years, San Miguel County has changed the addresses of dozens or even hundreds of homes to make them easier for first responders to find, Mahan said. She said several neighbors had similar issues with FEMA and their address.
The deed and application to FEMA both say “10 Forest Road.” The Forest Service also notes their home with that address, she said.
Still, FEMA and San Miguel County both now have the updated address, which is why Mahan suspects FEMA is disputing whether Mahan submitted proof of ownership and the correct address.
Mahan was able to get the county’s information technology staff to provide her a letter showing the address change, which she hopes will help FEMA verify her application. It helped that she remembered that her address change occurred in late 2015.
“It actually took him a couple of days to find it. But if you don’t know when they did the re-addressing, I think it would be even harder to get that letter,” she said.
Castillo, with FEMA, said the agency is aware of address changes in “some of the counties included in this declaration.” She said applicants who erroneously fall in that category have the option to provide additional documents.
“Currently, FEMA is completing outreach to applicants with issues that are keeping them from receiving assistance and will advise of alternate documents available,” she said. “In addition, some residents have in New Mexico have presented letters or statements from local 9-1-1 addressing officials to assist in resolving address issues.”
A San Miguel County official did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Mahan and her husband built the home by putting additions on a travel trailer. He first hiked Hermits Peak when he was 3, and when she moved to the area in high school, she said, she fell in love with the mountains.
They lived simply, with no electronics or Internet. He also works in Kansas as a welder, she said. The off-grid living and his out-of-state work situation likely made their application more complicated, she said.
The family didn’t get insurance because they built the house themselves and, she said, getting insurance is just not a common conversation in that area.
“It’s like, if you didn’t have a mortgage, you didn’t have insurance. And it was almost like a point of pride, you know, that nobody else is helping you,” she said. “And that’s not necessarily the reason that we did it. But it’s part of why it just wasn’t something we thought about.”
But she is frustrated that the agency’s system seems to function based on denials and appeals instead of working with people to get it right the first time. Residents must appeal within 60 days or face a permanent denial.
“They (FEMA) seem to be comfortable with, ‘This is just how the system works. It’s okay, just appeal.’” she said. “I guess we’re a little bit frustrated that that’s how the system works.”
The amount of aid varies, but some residents with total losses have received $37,000 in a direct FEMA payment. So far, FEMA has paid about $3.6 million to 1,061 applicants.
More meaningful recompense to individuals and communities is still up in the air. A compensation bill introduced to Congress that notes the federal government’s liability in starting the megafire is pending, and litigation is in its early stages.
When it comes to their appeal, Mahan did hear back very quickly from the federal government. The family received a response to the appeal Tuesday after filing the appeal Monday.
But it asked for more information. To Mahan, it was just another frustration, given that the agency asked for a letter her husband had already provided:
“FEMA has received your letter appealing the decision on your application for disaster assistance. In order to make a decision on your appeal, FEMA needs additional documents,” FEMA’s letter reads.
The document in question, according to the notice?
“Missing appeal letter.”
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