The federal response to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request for disaster relief as a result of the massive blaze torching northern New Mexico can best be described as merely adequate.
President Joe Biden pledged last week that New Mexicans will have the full support of the federal government as it recovers and rebuilds from historic wildfires. But unless “full support” means making the state and affected residents whole, the executive branch will fall short of its obligation.
Investigations into the cause of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire are underway. The Forest Service has already taken responsibility for the Hermits Peak Fire, which started as a prescribed burn in early April. A second investigation will attempt to unravel whether embers from Hermits Peak started the Calf Canyon blaze. Last week the combined fire surpassed 300,000 acres. Aided by gusty winds, record heat and dry forests, the blaze has chewed through northeastern communities in the past month, becoming the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Lujan Grisham said the flames have likely destroyed up to 1,500 structures and forced up to 18,000 people to flee.
The governor and other elected N.M. officials are right to suggest the federal government should foot the bill for firefighting costs, rebuilding communities and replenishing forests. Even if the feds come through, the fire has exacted a bigger toll on the economy.
The fire and persistent drought conditions have led to the temporary closure of Santa Fe, Carson and parts of Cibola national forests. They might have been closed anyway, but the Canyon Calf/Hermits Peak fire sealed their fate, putting the kibosh on New Mexico’s burgeoning outdoor recreation industry. No more cool escapes to mountain forests, which affects the small businesses that cater to outdoor recreation enthusiasts in the form of lodging, bars, restaurants and apparel and gear stores. We get that all it takes is one careless spark, but it’s going to be a long, hot summer.
Businesses that depend on hikers, bikers, anglers and wildlife hunters and watchers know the value of public lands. Several told the Journal they’re OK with closures because it preserves their livelihoods.
Patrick Johnson, owner of Rumor Brewing Co. in Cedar Crest, said while a sizable share of his customers are usually hikers from the nearby trails, he is in full support of the closures even if it comes at the cost of fewer customers.
He said he sees it as a trade-off if it means the Cibola National Forest can be spared from the types of devastating forest fires currently raging in the state.
But it’s not just national forests that are subject to closure. State-owned public lands and county open spaces are being affected as well. Manzano Mountains State Park is closed until further notice and Santa Fe County has closed Arroyo del la Piedra, Little Tesuque Creek, Rio en Medio and Talaya Hill open spaces.
But lack of access to recreation pales in comparison to losing a home and the natural beauty around it.
Last week, New Mexico’s four Democrats in Congress introduced the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act to provide additional compensation to New Mexico residents and business owners impacted by the Hermits Peak Fire. The bill would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to design and administer a program for fully compensating those who suffered personal injury, property losses, business and financial losses resulting from the Hermits Peak Fire.
Regardless of the bill’s chance of passing, these lawmakers are absolutely right to make the case. Lujan Grisham will have a chance to press Biden further on the issue. During a recent call with the president, she invited Biden to travel to New Mexico to see firsthand the impact of the wildfires and meet with affected New Mexicans, which the president said he intends to do.
In her initial request for a federal disaster declaration, Lujan Grisham sought the full range of FEMA assistance under Category B of Public Assistance and Category A, debris removal. But only partial approval of Category B was granted (mass care sheltering and direct federal assistance), while Category A was not granted at all, according to the governor’s website.
Later she asked the feds to assume responsibility for 100% of the costs associated with the response instead of the typical 75%/25% split.
It takes all of us
While these issues get hashed out, we renew calls for local governments to issue bans on fireworks before the July 4th holiday, and for vendors to emulate their counterparts who depend on the outdoor industry and put public safety above profit. The entire state is a tinderbox. It’s the height of recklessness to allow fireworks when public lands are being closed as a precaution against wildfires. State legislators should be working on a way to enact a statewide ban instead of leaving decisions to a patchwork of local governments.
If New Mexico representatives are going to hold the federal government responsible for fires, then they need to walk their talk and do everything in their power to limit them, too. That goes for us everyday New Mexicans. If you see someone doing something that could spark a fire in the bosque, on public land or in open space, say something.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.