FEMA opts not to hire a New Mexican to rule on claims for Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire

By: - November 18, 2022 2:37 pm

About 100 people gathered Thursday in a Las Vegas middle school hall to offer public comments for how FEMA should administer $2.5 billion in aid for victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency held its first public meeting yesterday to accept comments for how it might tailor its $2.5 billion program to best help victims of the biggest fire in New Mexico history, one accidentally started by the United States Forest Service.

But a FEMA official told Source New Mexico that the agency has already made one big decision before its rules are written in stone: It won’t hire someone outside the agency to have the final say on claims for damages. 

Fire victims and advocates have asked for someone else to be appointed, preferably a former judge who is from New Mexico and understands the specific needs of fire victims in this disaster. The law passed by Congress in late September awarding fire victims the $2.5 billion gives FEMA that option. 

Alissa Wells, a Mora resident, said she would have more faith in the process with someone who is from New Mexico making decisions to deny or accept claims. FEMA’s response to the fire so far has frustrated many residents due to the number of denials they’ve issued and also how limited aid has been. 

“Many of us have been denied multiple times, over and over,” Wells told FEMA officials at the meeting Thursday evening in a Las Vegas middle school hall. “And a lot of people believe that if FEMA is in charge of this, that we will not be treated fairly.”

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

She also said some of her neighbors will be less likely to participate with a FEMA bureaucrat at the helm.

“I also know many people personally who have stated that if it has anything to do with FEMA, they’re just not going to be participating,” she said. “They’re worn out. They’re tired. And they’ve got better stuff to do than to keep reapplying and reapply and reapply.”

Angela Gladwell is the FEMA official recently named the director of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Claims Office. The agency is scrambling to set up a completely new office that will be in charge of paying out the money to fire victims, an effort to fully compensate them for many different types of damage they’ve suffered since the fire began in April in northern New Mexico. The fire burned more than 530 square miles of land, including forests and ranches. 

Gladwell said in a brief interview after the meeting that she would be what’s known as the “independent claims manager” as outlined in the compensation law. 

She declined to comment on how that decision was made or why. 

However, she has said that the office will attempt to hire as many New Mexicans as possible in key roles for the office. The agency hopes to have a local hiring event by the end of December. 

“We’re expecting a number of our key positions, especially those that are interfacing directly with the community, to be local hires,” she said. 

The act Congress passed is largely based on the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, which was passed in July 2000, a month after the National Park Service lit a prescribed burn that escaped and destroyed homes in and around Los Alamos. In that case, FEMA also headed up the claims office and made final decisions. 

Echoes of the Cerro Grande wildfire 22 years later

But Antonia Roybal-Mack, a lawyer representing fire victims, said the distrust of FEMA after this fire makes it important to assure victims that they can trust the process. 

“We were still extremely hopeful that that might be the reality…,” she said. “I’m not shocked that they chose not to do that. It’s extremely disappointing.” 

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat whose district contains the burn scar, said her office is continuing to push FEMA to hire New Mexicans. 

“We need people in that office who understand the unique challenges and culture of the affected communities as claims are filed, reviewed, and ultimately determined,” she said. “Hiring local is essential to build trust in the Hermit’s Peak Claims Office and make sure the claims process is as easy and fast as possible for New Mexicans who have lost so much.”

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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.