The burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire pictured Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)
Congress overnight announced $1.45 billion more for a compensation program for victims of New Mexico’s biggest-ever wildfire, bringing the total that could be approved for the blaze to $3.95 billion.
The omnibus spending package still has to be approved in both chambers, and lawmakers are up against a clock, trying to get it done by the end of the week.
Two botched federal prescribed burns this year merged in late April to become the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which scorched more than 530 square miles of land northeast of Las Vegas, N.M. At least 500 homes burned over several months, and ensuing floods caused further damage in the burn scar.
As an effort to fully compensate victims, Congress in late September approved $2.5 billion for a program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation hailed the payment as “historic.” It was at least twice as big as the last similar compensation program in New Mexico over 20 years ago.
But Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told reporters that it might also not be enough, saying some estimates put the cost of all of the damage wrought by the megafire at $5 billion.
Members of Congress announced in the early hours of Tuesday morning that they had reached a potential agreement on a spending plan overnight that included billions of dollars for disaster relief and other priorities, including $1.45 billion more for victims of the fire in northern New Mexico. The total plan is worth about $1.7 trillion.
Negotiations on this latest round of funding must be completed by the end of this week, when a temporary government funding solution expires. If Congress does not agree on the massive spending program, parts of the government will shut down.
The $1.45 billion includes $140 million for the “replacement of water treatment facilities,” which a congressional aide told Source New Mexico is intended to help the city Las Vegas, N.M. The fire imperiled the city’s drinking water system by sending silted water into a reservoir downstream of the burn scar.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat from Las Vegas, N.M., said in a news release that the extra funding is way to help as many people as possible who were negatively affected by the fire.
“This additional funding is what justice looks like — the federal government is taking responsibility for the harm it caused and answering the stories, voices, and calls for help to rebuild,” she said.
The new money would be added to a coffer administered by FEMA, which is preparing to oversee the newly created Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Claims Office. FEMA was given $2.5 billion for the program, which it will also use to pay administrative costs for implementing the program.
If enacted, the $3.95 billion in total spending in northern New Mexico amounts to nearly half of all of New Mexico’s budget this year. Or, for further comparison, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings football teams are each worth a little less than $4 billion, according to Forbes.
That fire victims would see any compensation for the botched burns was never guaranteed, especially with a new Congress preparing to be seated early next year, including a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
President Joe Biden’s administration, however, had sought even more money for N.M. fire victims. The Office of Management and Budget in mid-November asked Congress to approve $2.9 billion more for fire victims, which would have brought the total to $5.4 billion.
It’s not yet clear why Congress halved what Biden requested in what it just announced.
The OMB also declined to comment on how it arrived at the $5.4 billion figure, referring comment instead to the Congressional Budget Office. A spokesperson there said last week the office was too busy with negotiations to comment.
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