NM Dems introduce Hermit's Peak Fire aid bill - Albuquerque Journal

NM Dems introduce Hermit’s Peak Fire aid bill

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burned fields and forest along NM 283 near Las Vegas, Thursday May 5, 2022. New Mexico Democrats have introduced a bill that would require the federal government pay for the fire, which started as a prescribed burn. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In an effort to hold the federal government accountable for the Hermit’s Peak Fire, the Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation introduced a bill that would require the federal government cover the costs of the inferno, including uninsured property loss and lost wages.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury on Wednesday introduced the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, which would require FEMA to create a program for fully compensating those who suffered personal injury, property losses and business and financial losses from the fire complex raging in northern New Mexico.

The Hermits Peak Fire started on April 12 when a prescribed burn by the Forest Service within the Santa Fe National Forest broke containment. The fire later merged with the Calf Canyon fire and has become one of the largest blazes in state history, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Officials have said that more than 200 homes have been destroyed.

“I would say that there’s liability on the federal government, because it was the federal government and federal employees who started the controlled burn, and then that controlled burn got out of control,” Luján said in a phone interview Wednesday. “So that’s why this legislation is specific to (the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire) because of the liabilities, I would say, and the fault of that fire getting out of control as a prescribed burn.”

He said the bill would go further than the money made available last week when President Biden approved a disaster declaration that made federal money available to individuals, local government and organizations in five New Mexico counties that were affected by fires. That assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover.

“Everyone in New Mexico is grieving over the loss of our beautiful forests, communities and memories, from Gallinas canyon to the meadows and mesas in Mora where cattle and elk grazed, and the streams that nourished our acequias and farmlands,” Leger Fernández said in a prepared statement. “We will not replace in our lifetimes the forest landscape. But the federal government can and must take responsibility for the harm the prescribed burn unleashed on our homelands.”

The bill introduced Tuesday calls for the government to pay for insured and uninsured property loss, lost wages, reforestation costs, business interruption loss, insurance deductibles, new flood insurance needed for area residents and other ways that fire has financially impacted northern New Mexico communities.

The bill says that FEMA will create a Office of Hermit’s Peak Fire Claims which will timely process claims and award actual compensatory damages. It doesn’t set a limit on how much funding the federal government could provide.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance said the office doesn’t have data on uninsured and underinsured property.

“We still have work to do. We have to earn the support of fellow senators to get this passed up the Senate will have to earn the support of House members to get this passed out of the house as well, and then get it to the President’s desk,” Luján said. “So this is an important first step, but there’s much work to do after this.”

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