Gap in full federal wildfire compensation is imminent

Biden’s move was supposed to be a stopgap measure, but it expires soon, and the US Senate won’t likely vote on something more permanent until September

By: - July 26, 2022 5:00 am

Smoke from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire clouds the sunset in northern New Mexico on June 13, 2022. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

The federal government is set to stop paying 100% of the expenses related to the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history in just over a week. 

As of 4 p.m. on Monday, July 25

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire torched over 340,000 acres and is 93% contained.

Investigators found in late May that the blame lies squarely with the United States Forest Service.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked President Joe Biden on Friday to ensure, without delay, that the feds push out the expiration date on how long the U.S. will pick up the full tab.

Biden visited New Mexico last month, promising that the federal government would cover all eligible costs from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. That included emergency protective measures, relief for damage done to public or private properties, and debris removal. This full coverage dated retroactively back to May 4, extended 90 days and is set to expire on Aug. 4.

The state’s Department of Homeland Security requested on July 13 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency lengthen the disaster period and include flooding in the declaration. After not receiving a reply from FEMA, the governor wrote to the president herself for an answer and with some additional requests for more counties to be labeled as designated disaster areas and temporary housing for people that lost their homes.

One part of that — temporary housing for displaced residents — was approved on Friday, said FEMA spokesperson Angela Byrd, and eligible residents have been identified and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Lujan Grisham wrote to the president that the state is using everything it has at its disposal to fight the fire and flooding threats. “However, the ever-increasing depletion of resources and costs to save lives and protect New Mexicans’ homes, property, and heritage as these issues continue exceeds the capability of the state,” she wrote.

There hasn’t been a full response to the governor’s letter yet. Bryd said it’s being reviewed.

Four requests from N.M. to FEMA:

  • The extension of the New Mexico disaster declaration beyond Aug. 4
  • 100% federal coverage of eligible costs for the entire disaster period
  • Inclusion of flooding impacts in the disaster declaration
  • Inclusion of Los Alamos and Sandoval counties as designated disaster areas.

An urgent situation

New Mexico’s U.S. senators and representatives are also urging Biden to quickly approve Lujan Grisham’s request. Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján teamed up with Democratic Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury as well as Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell and wrote a letter to Biden on Monday in light of “the severity and life-and-death nature of this crisis.”

“Due to the urgency and severe needs of this crisis, we urge you to approve the State of New Mexico’s requests as quickly as possible,” the letter states. “It is imperative that the federal government provides full support to New Mexican communities to recover from the devastating wildfires.”

Byrd said there’s not a specific timeline for when state leaders will hear back.

“It’s not an immediate turnaround,” Byrd said. “It is a process. It’s just a wait-and-see.”

If the extension request isn’t granted, the federal government will assume 75% of costs and the other 25% must come from the state, Byrd said.

Lujan Grisham pointed out a federal agency was found responsible for starting the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires.

“It is critical that FEMA grant our request for additional disaster support, particularly in light of the fact that the ongoing damage is the result of U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release.

Stalled funding for victims

The original 90-day period of the disaster declaration was meant “to serve as a bridge between emergency operations and the potential passage of the pending Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act legislation,” according to a White House news release from June. But that bill isn’t expected to move forward for weeks.

The legislation, which passed in the U.S. House last week, would get more money into the hands of victims who lost property due to the fire, but it isn’t expected to be heard in the Senate until at least September.

Disaster relief itself is limited in the amount of funding it can dole out, attorney Joe Lovell said, which is why the legislation would be helpful. Lovell is a partner at a Texas-based law firm and is working with victims of the fire for compensation for their property losses.

Even if the disaster period is extended, Lovell said, there are limits to the compensation people can get. “It’s still disaster relief,” he said.

As of Monday, July 25

1,156 New Mexican residents have been approved for FEMA assistance.

Byrd was unable to provide updated numbers on how many denials there have been so far. As of July 1, 29% of applications were issued initial denial letters and told to re-apply.

Immediate funding from FEMA is capped at just under $40,000 for people who have been displaced and lost their homes due to the fire. Many applicants have already been denied the funding but are encouraged to apply again. And this is the only route for immediate relief, Lovell said.

“People are learning that there’s only so much that FEMA disaster relief provides,” Lovell said.

Full compensation will likely take months of waiting. The best course of action for victims, he said, is watching to see whether the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act will pass in the Senate.

“That really means wait,” Lovell said. “That’s really what it means, at least as far as recovery of damages, which would be everything.”


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.