After passing US House, Hermits Peak Fire aid act won’t hit the Senate for weeks 

By: - July 19, 2022 4:34 am

A rainbow over the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire on July 14, near Cleveland, N.M. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

A bipartisan effort to get more money in the hands of victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire is on its way to the United States Senate after clearing the House on Thursday, but it won’t be considered again until at least September.

The bill is an effort to fully compensate those who lost homes or business due to the biggest fire in state history, one that began as a result of two errant Forest Service prescribed burns that then merged into a megafire. The blaze consumed more than 340,000 acres and destroyed several hundred homes. 

Since then, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided immediate assistance to those who were displaced or suffered costs due to the fire. However, that assistance is limited, often to around $40,000 for people whose homes were destroyed. Plus, applicants and elected officials have criticized the agency for being too quick to deny applications. 

The Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of New Mexico lawmakers, seeks to build on that FEMA money to make victims whole. 

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“Even as we grieve, we must rebuild from the intergenerational loss of homes and business, beautiful forests, and invaluable memories. This bill is an essential first step to provide full compensation for these losses so that the rebuilding can truly begin,” Leger Fernandez said in a statement. 

It’s an echo of the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos in 2000, also caused by an escaped federal prescribed burn. In that case, Congress allocated additional money to FEMA to set up a specific office just for Cerro Grande victims and issued additional checks to individuals, businesses and governments. 

The bill was folded into the $857 billion National Defense Authorization Act, though it does not establish a dollar amount specifically for Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon victims yet. The amendment to the bill passed by a vote of 277 to 150. 

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said he’s optimistic the bill will pass, citing the fact that it has bipartisan sponsors. 

But only time will tell, and even if it does clear this next hurdle, people in New Mexico will have to wait at least several months before it’s enacted. 

Meanwhile, thousands are still reeling from the massive fire and the complications it caused. For one, floods are increasing in the burn scar during the monsoon season, adding further damage to landscape and communities. Many people suffering losses, including farmers and ranchers, are displaced while trying to navigate an alphabet soup of federal relief programs, often with limited success.

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FEMA, for example, issued denials to about 30% of applicants so far, according to the latest figures. 

When the Cerro Grande fire destroyed homes in Los Alamos, many of the victims were affluent, white employees of the national laboratories. The FEMA administrator at the time visited the small town personally to provide the county government there with $13 million, delivered with an oversized check and a handshake. A Republican senator from New Mexico, Pete Domenici, sponsored the legislation then.

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. That was about 15 months after the fire. 

FEMA’s most recent numbers show they’ve provided a little more than $3.7 million to more than 1,100 applicants, though it’s only been about three months since the fire began, and the agency is limited by law in what it can provide to applicants at this point. 

Luján, for his part, is urging his Republican colleagues who served with Domenici to remember supporting the legislation back then, even though it’s 22 years later and a different disaster.

“Following the Cerro Grande Fire, Congress passed legislation to help New Mexicans recover and rebuild,” Luján said in a statement to Source New Mexico. “Now, we must do the same to help make New Mexicans whole that were affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. There was bipartisan support for the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, and I’m confident that there will be strong bipartisan support for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act.”

What it would do:

The bill, if it becomes law, would allow those with damages or losses to file an application within two years, and then the government will have up to six months afterward to determine if a claim is valid. 

The total will be reduced by any insurance payments an applicant would have received up to that point. 

Individual applicants can file claims for loss of property, a decrease in property value, damage to infrastructure “including irrigation infrastructure such as acequia systems” and any costs that result from lost subsistence through hunting, fishing, gathering firewood, timber, grazing or agriculture. 

Businesses can also seek damages under the act, including for damage to inventory, business interruptions, lost wages and more. 

As written, the legislation would also cover new flood insurance payments, flood or fire mitigation, debris removal, increased mortgage interest or loans provided by the Small Business Administration. 

There is no cap on the amount a person or business can receive. 

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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.