Northern NM fire victims say they need help now, even with $2.5 billion on the way

By: - October 19, 2022 4:50 am

About 200 people packed into a hall at Mora High School on Monday with tough questions about how they’ll be compensated through a $2.5 billion fund created by Congress in late September. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

About 200 victims of the biggest fire in state history packed a high school lecture hall in Mora on Monday night, many of whom say they need immediate help even as a massive compensation program is on its way.

Many of the folks affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which burned 340,000 acres of northern New Mexico forest land and destroyed more than 500 homes, expressed gratitude about the prospect of being made whole, eventually. Congress recently passed a $2.5 billion fund aimed to pay victims of a fire the United States Forest Service started earlier this year, a result of two escaped prescribed burns.

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But that historic windfall is still months away, U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez told those in the overfull room where many stood for the duration of the meeting, lining the walls at Mora High School. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has until mid-November to publish rules for the program, and then there will be at least a few weeks of public comment. After that, the agency will have six months to evaluate claims before cutting a check. 

In the meantime, roads in the flooded burn scar have turned to “soup,” one attendee said. One woman said she urgently needs money to pay for her son’s mental health care, which greatly suffered because of the fire. Small ranchers are footing the bill for fencing and repairs. Others need housing, food, firewood, hay for their cattle.

“There isn’t one person in this room who is OK, maybe if you’re not from here,” said one Mora resident, the grandmother of small children, concerned about young people’s mental health “But we’re all – we’re all – suffering.”

When it eventually arrives, the Hermits Peak-Fire Assistance Act will seek to pay back the full economic cost of damages, including homes lost, business revenue destroyed, mental health care costs, losses in property value and more. The bill was enacted in late September, earlier than once feared, as part of the congressional continuing resolution. 

FEMA will stand up a completely new office to oversee the compensation program, including paying for navigators to help victims get through the application and calculate what they are owed. Victims will have two years after the office is set up to file a claim. 

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But much is still up in the air about how FEMA will run the program. For one, FEMA will determine whether to hire an independent claims manager, which some local advocates are calling for.

And it’s not yet clear how many people will be hired and what will be put in place to ensure the navigators or administrators are from New Mexico.

Local hiring is a priority, Leger Fernandez said, and so is including public comments during FEMA’s rule-making phase.

Those aspects should help ensure the program is designed to best help victims in northern New Mexico, where 200-year-old acequias nourish farmers and ranchers, and where many don’t have the types of documents FEMA usually requires before approving a claim. 

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez addresses fire victims as FEMA officials listen in. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Those are hurdles FEMA has struggled to overcome in the aftermath of the fire. The agency is limited to the amount it can pay in damages, and Congress is working on reforming the agency to better prepare for and respond to wildfires. 

FEMA representatives were also at the meeting, and they took questions from an often angry audience. Agency officials took down names and case numbers to help those with issues. 

“First thing I want to say is that I know every one of you right now are very frustrated,” said Gerard Stolar, FEMA’s coordinating officer for the New Mexico response. “And you’re angry at the federal government. I understand it. The people that work for me… understand it. We have an opportunity to get it right.”

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State Rep. Roger Montoya (D-Velarde) questioned Stolar about delays in getting FEMA trailers to help an ongoing housing crisis in the region. It looks to him, he said, like FEMA can quickly deploy trailers in other disasters, but he hears from three to four constituents a week who are crashing on couches or can’t find adequate shelter as a long winter looms. It’s been six months since the fire started, he pointed out.

“Why are people waiting so long for those trailers?” Montoya asked, drawing applause. 

FEMA told Source New Mexico in September that it had approved housing for 21 residents, but they were still waiting for a place to stay. Stolar said Monday that the agency does have trailers but is having difficulty hooking up any temporary housing to utilities like running water. He said the agency is meeting this week with state officials to figure out whether sites at local parks might work for 10 to 15 more trailers. 

“But I don’t have a date certain on that right now,” Stolar said. “The challenges here in northern New Mexico, as you know, are very significant.”

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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. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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