Lujan Grisham: Feds liable for wildfire damage - Albuquerque Journal

Lujan Grisham: Feds liable for wildfire damage

Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire rises behind an old church in Llano, near Penasco. The fire was 41% contained as of Monday evening. The governor is pressing the federal government to take more responsibility for damage. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday that the federal government faces significant legal liability for its role in igniting the largest wildfire in state history, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, still burning in northern New Mexico.

She added that it’s “problematic” that federal emergency aid isn’t designed to fully compensate victims for their losses.

Meanwhile, firefighters reported that the fire complex near Las Vegas, New Mexico, grew about another 1,000 acres by Monday evening, reaching a total of 311,252 acres. The blaze was 41% contained, and officials said they were allowing some residents who were under mandatory evacuation orders to return to their homes.

Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst, predicted several more good days of firefighting conditions before winds pick up again Friday and into the weekend.

“That’s going to be a good thing for our crews and everybody else involved out there,” he said.

He did say that a finger of flames jutting west from the southwestern edge of the fire near Upper Colonias is currently the most problematic part of the fire.

Though some areas were being repopulated, San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez cautioned that higher winds forecast for the weekend could cause problems.

“It doesn’t mean were out of the woods yet,” he said.

The governor has been pressing the federal government to take more responsibility for the inferno, which has destroyed between 1,000 and 1,500 structures and forced thousands of New Mexicans to evacuate their homes.

Taking questions from reporters Monday, Lujan Grisham said she had blunt conversations with federal officials in Washington, D.C., last week about the massive blaze, at least part of which was started after a prescribed burn grew out of control.

She compared the federal liability for the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire to the infamous Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 near Los Alamos, which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“They have liability here – bigger liability, in my view, than Los Alamos,” Lujan Grisham said.

The governor has encouraged New Mexicans to register at disasterassistance.gov to be eligible for aid.

But she also noted that federal officials say FEMA assistance isn’t designed to fully compensate people for their losses. It’s capped at $39,400 for home repairs and $39,400 for other costs.

“I find this to be problematic. …We‘re going to find ways to make New Mexicans who have lost everything as whole as humanly possible,” Lujan Grisham said.

The governor praised the U.S. Forest Service decision to pause prescribed burns across the country for 90 days. She said it was exactly what she’d asked for during a meeting with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials.

The rules for prescribed burns are “antiquated,” she said, and New Mexico will play a role in helping federal agencies craft more appropriate regulations for the burns, which are used to clear brush and reduce fire danger.

The Black Fire

The Black Fire, burning in the Gila National Forest, grew about 17,000 acres by Monday evening. The blaze is now almost 147,000 acres.

The fire has destroyed two structures and led to evacuations in Grant, Catron and Sierra counties.

Humans are believed to be responsible for the fire but the exact cause is under investigation, according to a federal fire information system.

More closures

Another New Mexico forest is closing to the public amid the high fire danger.

The Lincoln National Forest in southeastern New Mexico is closing its 1.1 million-acre forest to the public beginning Wednesday morning. The order is in effect until July 30, unless it’s rescinded earlier.

The Santa Fe, Carson and parts of the Cibola national forests have already announced similar closures because of fire danger.

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