Proposed $2.5 billion for wildfire victims is almost triple the last time feds lit NM on fire

By: - September 28, 2022 5:00 am

State Rep. Roger Montoya and his campaign manager Isaac Casados look over part of the burn scar left by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in June. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

The $2.5 billion included in the new congressional spending plan greatly exceeds the amount Congress awarded the last time the federal government accidentally let a prescribed burn escape in New Mexico, according to a Source New Mexico review.

Despite the high number, some state lawmakers are worried about the federal government’s long-term commitment to restoring the northern New Mexico landscape — and its ability to administer the funds, given the track record so far. 

In May 2000, the National Park Service lit a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, N.M. The blaze grew out of control quickly and, thanks to a delay in suppression, limited resources and merciless weather, became the notorious Cerro Grande fire — one that burned about 43,000 acres, caused $1 billion in damage and destroyed several hundred Los Alamos homes. 

Twenty-two years later, on a windy April day, a Santa Fe National Forest Crew ignited a 1,200-acre swath of Las Dispensas, northeast of Las Vegas, and the blaze escaped. The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire went on to burn more than 500 homes and destroy more than 340,000 acres, and it ushered in ongoing flood and watershed damage. 

Congress spending plan includes $2.5 billion for Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire victims

Since then, state and federal elected officials have tried to get the federal government to foot the bill for compensation for people who lost homes or suffered any number of other damages, including lost business revenue, reductions in property value, new insurance costs and more. 

That’s where the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act comes in. Federal lawmakers announced its inclusion Tuesday in the continuing resolution, which funds the government for the next couple months and pays for other measures. It’s expected to pass today. 

Parts of this year’s fire compensation bill are modeled after an act of Congress paying victims of the Cerro Grande Fire. 

The Cerro Grande legislation established a new office within the Federal Emergency Management Agency for “special reimbursements” intended to fully compensate homeowners and others, going beyond the limited emergency funding FEMA could provide immediately after a disaster. That’s true of this year’s bill, too. 

In July 2000 — just two months after the fire began — President Bill Clinton signed the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act into law and allocated $455 million to FEMA for victims. The agency received an additional $90 million in 2003, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

When campaigning means delivering food behind the fire lines

All told, the $545 million FEMA received for those folks amounts to $937 million in today’s dollars — about two-fifths of what Congress announced Tuesday for northern New Mexico. The money won’t be real until Congress approves it this week, and it remains to be seen just how quickly the claims will be processed. 

The congressional delegation members said the money is a necessary step to compensate those in the burn scar for the federal government’s mistake. 

“As we work to keep the government funded this week, we will continue fighting hard to get this legislation across the finish line,” U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) said in a news release. 

Outgoing New Mexico state Rep. Roger Montoya (D-Velarde) told Source New Mexico that he appreciates the sizeable amount included in the continuing resolution. But he worries that FEMA won’t be up to the task, and he said the agency lags behind what he saw happen in Cerro Grande. 

Many of the Cerro Grande victims were wealthy employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Those impacted by the recent fire were more likely to be low-income and uninsured, and many have complained about FEMA’s response so far. 

“The ($2.5 billion) got the interest of people but also made people a bit skeptical, given the insufficiency of FEMA,” Montoya said. “We’re just not seeing the kind of speed that we saw with the Cerro Grande Fire. It was almost a whole different paradigm.”

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It’s taken nearly five months from the date of this year’s fire for Congress to act. Initially, moves by Congress were expected to be even slower when the legislation was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which is still pending. 

“There’s no clarity on if, or when they will have housing, temporary housing,” Montoya said. “How hard is it to bring in trailers, for Christ’s sakes? And it’s very frustrating, as the legislator, trying to answer questions to my people (wondering), ‘Why is it so slow?’”

Also, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), chair of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Interim Committee, said he is less impressed with one-time allocations like this one than he would be for a recurring commitment to restore the environment over the next few years. 

“Given the size of this particular fire and the amount of structures, it’s also work that takes years to keep re-seeding it in times you’re not successful,” he said. “It’s not a one-year proposition.”


This story was updated on Monday, Oct. 3 at 8:15 a.m. to correctly reflect the committee that Sen. Jeff Steinborn leads.

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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.