Ranchers look at dead trees on their property in the Gila National Forest on July 28, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Dealing with massive wildfire damage many can’t afford to repair, Black Fire victims in southern New Mexico could finally see some recovery money if a new legislative proposal gets passed.
Sens. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) introduced a Black Fire Recovery bill on Friday, Feb. 3, that would set aside $3 million from the state’s General Fund immediately. Locals could apply for the money, which would cover repair work until late 2025. Anything leftover would go back to the state.
In the several months since the 2022 fire and flooding, public officials, acequia stewards and private landowners have been struggling to get funding to repair costly damage. Diamond said this bill could pull down financial assistance for all of those people.
Correa Hemphill said both local counties and acequias associations would be able to request money. Some of those dollars could even be returned to the fund down the line. Grant, Sierra and Hidalgo Counties are eligible for state reimbursements on recovery work, but it’s been difficult for them to afford all the up-front costs.
There’s a workaround for the state’s anti-donation clause — a hangup for private landowners — baked into the proposal. Local soil and water conservation districts could also use the funding for repairs on private land, Diamond said. That would bypass the clause, which Correa Hemphill said is still making it difficult to get New Mexico dollars directly to people in crisis situations, despite the constitutional amendment that voters approved in November.
The two lawmakers that represent many of the affected southern districts didn’t originally plan to introduce Black Fire-specific legislation. Correa Hemphill said they’re both fairly new senators dealing with unprecedented crises in their districts, and the state has money now to fund this with a $3.6 billion surplus budget
“This is a great opportunity for us to really be able to make a meaningful difference,” she said. “It’ll have a generational impact in New Mexico.”
Diamond said after she learned that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire bill would only cover that disaster, she realized they needed a stand-alone measure to get communities’ resources. She said counties have already identified damaged areas and necessary repair projects, like fixing roads, fences, water systems and other infrastructure.
“All of our counties have expressed that they’re ready to go as soon as the money is available,” Diamond said.
How quickly that money gets out depends on how fast the bill moves through the Legislature and then how soon the state goes through applications, though the bill doesn’t yet directly lay out that process.
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