N.M. delegation writes bills to pay Cerro Pelado Fire victims, expand deadline for $4B wildfire fund

By: - October 5, 2023 3:03 pm

New growth emerges in early September near Hermits Peak, more than a year a Forest Service crew accidentally let a prescribed burn escape to become the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. NM congressional members this week announced legislation to expand the application window for compensation for victims of the fire. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

New Mexico members of Congress announced Thursday they had introduced legislation to expand compensation to victims of three wildfires accidentally set in the state by the federal Forest Service last spring.

In late April of last year, three wildfires roared to life after being ignited as prescribed burns by the Forest Service. Two of them – the Cerro Pelado Fire and the Calf Canyon Fire – started as pile burns that were left to smolder unattended and then broke out into wildfires. A third, the Hermits Peak Fire, was a broadcast burn that escaped from an understaffed crew near Hermits Peak on a dry, windy day in early April.

Since then, Congress has tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency with compensating victims of two of those fires, which later merged into the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and became the biggest in state history. Recently, after more than a year of silence, the Forest Service acknowledged it had also ignited the Cerro Pelado Fire near Los Alamos.

Three members New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, including Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, have sought compensation for those who suffered losses in those fires, including leading an effort late last year to secure nearly $4 billion in funding for thousands of people who lost their homes and livelihoods in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

On Thursday, they announced a pair of bills to expand on those efforts. Both bills were introduced Tuesday.

One bill would establish a claims office for the Cerro Pelado Fire, with separate FEMA employees and its own pot of money, to compensate people for the 49,000-acre blaze that destroyed at least 10 structures. The bill does not say how much money might be required to pay them, though Luján noted that no money would come from the fund established for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire survivors.

The other bill would give those in the  Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar additional time to file claims for compensation. The bill signed a year ago by President Joe Biden gave victims until November 2024 to file a claim for damages. The bill, if it’s approved in Congress, would move that deadline until the end of 2027.

Moving the deadline acknowledges the ongoing damage occurring in the 534-square-mile burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. More than a year after the fire, flooding and debris flows remain common in the area, particularly in the rural, mountainous communities that draw water from acequias.

Such flooding is expected for at least several more years, and some fire survivors have expressed concern about how they’ll be paid for damages that occur after the deadline next year.

“The fire was not the end of the heartache for our communities,” said Leger Fernández in a news release. “The burn scar created by this man-made disaster has left our people in the path of dangerous floods.”

More than a year since Biden signed the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act into law, FEMA has so far paid $84 million of the $3.95 billion awarded, or just over 2% of the total. 

This is only the second time FEMA has been tasked with compensating those affected after a wildfire the feds set accidentally. The first time was also in New Mexico, after the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos in 2000.

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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.