Rows of dead trees stand in the Gila National Forest after the Black Fire burned them. Pictured on July 28, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Hundreds of people and families in northern New Mexico are trying to recover after the state’s largest wildfire wrecked their homes and livelihoods, and much of the region. Lawmakers are coming together to try and allocate $100 million in loans from the General Fund to help them out, in addition to the billions of federal dollars to come. The measure is headed for a vote in the N.M. Senate.
But for the much less populated communities trying to recover in southern New Mexico from the second-biggest fire, it’s been a fight for many nearly every day to get the state to send recovery dollars, or even pay attention to the destruction they face.
And about two weeks into the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers have not yet introduced measures to set aside state money just for communities affected by the Black Fire as of Wednesday. There are two more weeks for lawmakers to introduce bills. The deadline is Thursday, Feb. 16.
Two massive blazes
The Black Fire burned just over 325,000 acres across the Gila National Forest in the spring and summer. Intense floods traveled over scorched land once the monsoons hit, too, creating further destruction during the fall.
The blaze was only about 15,000 acres smaller than the largest wildfire in New Mexico history — the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze that burned simultaneously up north in 2022.
In some of these more rural areas in southern N.M., ranchers’ closest neighbors are many miles of forest land away. Or a family’s one road into town was destroyed.
Damage remains from the Black Fire and from the flooding — roads and waterways impassable, rivers flowing in new paths, irrigation systems broken, livestock fences washed away. Public officials and private landowners in the region have been having a difficult time finding money to repair it all.
Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) represents two of the affected counties down south, Hidalgo and Sierra. She said a lot more attention is focused on the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in the Roundhouse right now.
“There’s a lot of conversation about how we need to respond to the northern fires,” she said. “I don’t disagree with that, but there’s not as much conversation here about how we’re going to respond to the Black Fire.”
Diamond, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said no money has been budgeted specifically for Black Fire recovery yet, though she noted it’s still early on in the session.
She said if funding isn’t simply allocated, she’d sponsor a measure to put aside that money, taken from the state’s $3.6 billion budget surplus. However, a bill isn’t the route she wants to go this session.
“I would hope that it would be unnecessary to have legislation,” Diamond said. “I would hope that because of being part of the budgeting process, we would simply do the right thing by budgeting some of this new money to make these people whole immediately.”
A bill to help rural areas after disasters
Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) represents Catron and Grant Counties, both of which are also still coping with Black Fire damage. She’s sponsoring a bill that could help fast-track repairs in any rural communities after disasters.
The legislation would create a pot of state dollars for rural or tribal officials to pull from when a disaster strikes and they can’t afford recovery on their own. Correa Hemphill said now’s the time for this kind of fund since the state has a historic budget surplus.
“With climate change, we’re only going to see an increase of these kinds of weather events, and so we really want to be proactive and problem solve now that we have the revenue and we can create these funds,” she said. “It’s really important to me that we protect our rural communities.”
Correa Hemphill’s measure doesn’t target only communities down south struggling after 2022’s wildfire, she said, because it’s meant to address the future needs of any rural or tribal community across the state.
Still, she said if passed and signed, her measure could quickly deliver financial solutions to the southern counties still reeling from the Black Fire. Some of these counties have been waiting over half a year to get repair funding promised by the state.
The governor signed emergency declarations allocating that state financial aid last year, but it only works on a reimbursement basis, something Correa Hemphill said can be difficult for smaller, rural governments. And not even all the southern counties had enough damage to qualify for funds, even though in one such county, Catron, interim county manager Stanley Brown said in December it’ll take years to come back from the disasters.
With Correa Hemphill’s proposed legislation, the recovery dollars would come straight from a state infrastructure fund created by the bill. The state could allocate up to $1 million within a county for disaster recovery projects per year.
Grant County Emergency Manager Justin Gojkovich said he’s talked with Correa Hemphill about her proposed legislation, and though he hasn’t reviewed the draft yet, he supports it.
In general, he said, when Grant County officials have brought up difficult recovery issues with lawmakers during interim legislative sessions, he’s been happy with how they’ve handled the requests for aid.
“They’ve done a great job of getting the wheels actually moving,” he said.
Broader burn legislation
Lawmakers have put forth a few wildfire-related bills this session.
The Wildfire Recovery Act is one such piece of legislation, introduced by Sens. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque) and Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas). Under this bill, people who successfully sue for lost or damaged property, as well as income or personal losses, wouldn’t have to pay taxes on any of those damages.
Campos said there are also plenty of bills being put forth that may not seem directly connected to fires but would factor in things like climate change or water resources that make a difference in handling disaster prevention and recovery efforts.
Another proposal from Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Alamogordo) would prohibit government entities from starting prescribed burns during spring.
For the Black Fire specifically, Campos said the state will try to allocate more resources and leverage federal dollars for victims when more damage assessments roll in, which he said will take a while. “It’ll be happening for several years to come in all these areas,” he said.
Bronson Corn is the president-elect for the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, an organization that has been involved in sending relief and supplies, such as hay, to affected ranchers in the Gila. He said he’s not satisfied with these broad legislative measures and delays in getting southern communities help.
He said there needs to be a bill specifically for the Black Fire so it gets prioritized and passed. These general disaster bills, he said, won’t help nearly as much as the lawmakers think “because it’s going to be put on the back burner.”
Little help for private landowners
Corn said there also needs to be more help focused on private landowners, many of whom are producers living in the Gila with heavy land damage. Some of those ranchers have said they haven’t had much luck getting state or federal financial help.
Since the feds started the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, people up north are applying for funds straight from Congress.
For the Black Fire, the U.S. Forest Service is still investigating how it started, though the agency said it was human-caused.
The state’s anti-donation clause previously blocked the state from giving money directly to people impacted by wildfires, but voters approved changing it in November so that New Mexico can send money for essential services like infrastructure or water directly to communities.
Regardless, questions remain about whether that funding would be allowed to go directly to a private landowner rather than an entire community.
And still, there aren’t any bills proposed to help fire victims down south specifically, despite the amended clause.
Corn said helping producers who are struggling to recover should be at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds considering how much those New Mexicans lost. But, he acknowledged, the Black Fire affected fewer people than the northern blaze.
“It’s a very remote area. It’s not up around a large metropolitan area,” Corn said. “There’s not a whole lot of population down there screaming out.”
Correa Hemphill said the rural location does contribute to there being less attention on the issue in the Roundhouse. It’s also a longer drive to the capital from the southern burn scar than from the one up north.
“It’s very challenging for my constituents to come up and advocate for what my community needs,” she said.
Diamond said she and Correa Hemphill are trying to make sure their counties aren’t being left out of conversations in Santa Fe.
“I can assure you,” she said, “that we will be fighting to make sure that constituents in both of those Senate districts get the resources they need to respond to consequences from the Black Fire.”
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