Concrete barriers stand to protect against flooding in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar. Pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Local counties that can’t afford to rebuild after New Mexico’s largest blaze are a step closer to getting help to do so. Legislation that would provide financial aid to affected counties unanimously passed through Senate Finance, its second committee, on Wednesday. It’s heading for a vote by the full Senate.
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds bill would dedicate $100 million from the state’s General Fund to northern local governments via zero-interest loans. Connected to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program, counties would pay for repairs upfront, then FEMA’s reimbursements would go back to the state.
“This devastating loss and destruction from these fires will take generations for rural northern New Mexican communities to fully recover and rebuild,” said the measure’s sponsor Rep. Ambrose Castellano (D-Las Vegas).
Ali Rye is deputy secretary of the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. She said this bill would allow northern communities to start rebuilding public infrastructure like roads, bridges and culverts. It could also be used for acequias, she added, whose stewards have been struggling to get recovery funds.
Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) said the state is stepping up to get this money out because of the delay getting federal money to northern New Mexico.
Rye said it could take up to a year for applicants to start to get the billions Congress allocated last year.
Funding only for Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire victims
Some senators asked why this bill can’t be broader to also apply to other burns in the state — for instance, the massive Black Fire in southern New Mexico that burned simultaneously last year. But Rye said this legislation is specific to the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire reimbursement program from FEMA, which other fires aren’t eligible for.
The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for that blaze. The Black Fire’s cause is still being investigated.
Campos said this exclusivity also makes the bill less complicated and could expedite its passage.
Sens. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) and Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) represent counties impacted by the southern fire. They said other fire victims need to be made whole as well. Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) tried to amend the bill so any wildfires started by the federal government would be eligible, though he withdrew his amendment during the committee hearing before the vote.
Muñoz later said he doesn’t like when lawmakers criticize or try to change bills so significantly in Senate Finance.
“Legislators can work on any piece of legislation that they want, and all of a sudden we get here, and they find a piece of legislation that they like,” he said. “They had fires in their districts, so they have that ability to start working on stuff sooner and not just wait.”
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