The feds have detailed imaging of NM fire damage, but they won’t hand it over, victims say

The U.S. agency that requires proof already has it. Still, people whose property was scorched have to jump through a hoop to get aid.

By: - November 1, 2022 5:00 am

A burned fence pictured in early September delineates private forestland burned in the government-caused Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. Some of those with damaged forests say they’re facing an unnecessary hurdle getting a detailed public record that would help them apply for aid. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Scott Moravec raised his hand during a community meeting in the burn scar of the state’s biggest wildfire, saying he’s encountering a roadblock in his request to repair 40 acres of fire and erosion damage in forested land in Chacon, N.M., where he lives.

He’s trying to apply for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program, which helps fire victims restore private forestland. To get money for erosion control or other emergency repairs, the United States Department of Agriculture requires documentation of the damage. 

It just so happens that an agency within the same department has a fancy, high-resolution image of the 530-square-mile burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, one paid for by taxpayers and created with the use of small aircraft equipped with light detection and ranging technology, known as LiDAR, plus other cameras. It’s highly detailed, three-dimensional and would helpfully show what the fire did to his land.

But the agency won’t give it to him, he said.

“I asked if I could get that photography of my property so I can outline the burn area,” Moravec said at the Oct. 17 meeting. “And they told me I had to file a Freedom of Information Act request.”

FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to provide government records to the public, except for those that can be withheld under specific, limited exceptions.

The national law is enforceable in court. 

To file a FOIA Request with Natural Resources Conservation Service, email: [email protected]v

FOIA requests are often the last resort for members of the public seeking records. The turnaround is notoriously slow, and it’s often a difficult system to navigate, even for those who aren’t in a disaster zone. The fire has left many without cell service, and Internet was spotty even before the fire. 

The National Resources Conservation Service, the USDA agency that holds the burn scar photo, took an average of 28 days to fulfill simple “perfected” FOIA requests in 2021, according to USDA figures. That’s longer than the USDA’s average of around 20 days. “Perfected” requests are those that are specific enough that the agency finds them relatively easy to complete. 

One such “perfected” request took NRCS 392 days to fill in 2021, according to a recent USDA report. 

Antonia Roybal-Mack, a Mora resident and attorney representing fire victims, said she’s regularly encountered people with the same issue as Moravec, and she’s also having difficulty getting the photo on behalf of her clients. It’s “incredibly inconvenient,” she said, for someone who’s had their property charred to even know where to start. 

A fire victim can’t simply file a FOIA with the USDA, for example. To ensure a speedy turnaround, someone would have to know what the specific document is called and exactly which division holds the record. 

“You have to tell them with as much specificity where it is within their system on the federal side,” she said. “And that’s not an easy lift for someone who doesn’t have the necessary training searching through government records.”

Roybal-Mack said the government is throwing up an unnecessary roadblock, especially since the USDA is in charge of both the agency that has the photo (that’s NRCS) and the agency that is requiring fire victims to provide it, which is the Farm Service Agency. 

“The right hand isn’t talking to the left,” Roybal-Mack said. 

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Fire victims often have difficulty documenting damage. Many roads are impassable due to flooding, and some areas are unsafe to visit on foot. 

Officials deny that they’re forcing fire victims to jump through this unnecessary, bureaucratic hoop, despite what Moravec and others have reported.  

“For producers and landowners that we work with, we are able to provide them with pictures of their own land, a standard practice for NRCS,” said Leonard Luna, a spokesperson for the agency in New Mexico.

Luna did not respond to a request for comment on why Moravec’s experience was different. His office also told Source New Mexico that it would need to file a FOIA for the map, saying that a FOIA was necessary for a news outlet because the document is not “publicly available” and because it showed private property. (Source New Mexico has filed a FOIA.)

The map was produced by Teren, a Colorado-based analytics company. It announced in August that it was working on a two-phase mapping effort that would first analyze publicly available data to identify areas in and around the burn scar at highest risk of erosion and flooding, and then conduct mapping using LiDAR and other tools to “pinpoint hazards and guide precision reclamation activities within the affected area.”

The company did not respond to requests for comment from Source New Mexico, both on its website and through a public relations company it works with. But NRCS and the company boasted in news articles when the analysis began in early August that its technology allowed it to analyze a heap of data in four to five days instead of months, which is how long it usually takes. 

Big law firms circle burn scar to get some of $2.5 billion NM fire payout

The company told New Mexico Political Report in early September that it had completed four days of flights over the 340,000-acre burn scar. 

​​“One of the things about the project is that it had a real sense of urgency on it,” Katherine Kraft, the company’s director of product strategy, told the news outlet. “The emergency watershed protection efforts began immediately following the containment of a fire.”

Teren’s map is possible through a $3.25 million University of Arizona contract with NRCS for technical support for conservation projects to benefit “private landowners, conservation districts, tribes and other organizations.”

Teren was hired as part of that, according to government records and the company’s website. It’s not clear from contract records how much taxpayer money was spent specifically on Teren’s burn scar map. 

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire began as a result of two errant prescribed burns that the United States Forest Service ignited in the Santa Fe National Forest this year. The blazes began on federal land but quickly spilled over into private property and forests, destroying more than 500 homes. Widespread flooding on the burnt landscape compounded the damage. 

The program Moravec is applying for is aimed at helping private or otherwise non-governmental property owners who previously had tree cover implement emergency measures to restore land damaged in natural disasters. Recipients can get up to $500,000 for debris removal, labor, planting materials, erosion control structures and more.  

Moravec told Source New Mexico in a previous interview that, despite the loss of forest, he’s grateful to fire crews for protecting his home. 

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

“We went through it. We survived it. We didn’t do too bad, but now we’re trying to decide what to do,” he said. “Because of so much damage, we’re having a lot of erosion problems, acres and acres of dead trees.”

The meeting Moravec spoke up at was a packed question-and-answer session in a Mora High School lecture hall, with U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez and federal officials fielding questions from about 200 frustrated fire victims. 

“It seems like that (photo) should be readily available for anybody who wants to see how much of their forest burned,” he said. 

“I would think so too,” Leger Fernandez said. “We will follow up with them.”

Her office did not respond to a request for comment from Source NM about whether she’s since learned anything more about the problem. 

Source NM reporter Megan Gleason contributed to this article.

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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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