SANTA FE – President Joe Biden flew over the perimeter of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history Saturday – describing parts of what he saw as a “moonscape” of damage – and vowed his administration would do everything it could to help the families who have lost their homes.
He also authorized additional federal funding to address the massive Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire and suggested the federal government has a moral obligation to help the people of northern New Mexico as they recover and prepare for the possibility of disastrous floods triggered by summer rainfall.
“We have a responsibility to help this state recover, to help the families who have been here for centuries in the beautiful northern New Mexico villages who can’t go home and whose livelihoods have been fundamentally changed,” Biden said after arriving in Santa Fe.
It was his first visit to New Mexico as president.
Biden – speaking to emergency officials, state legislators and others in Santa Fe – said Air Force One flew over the perimeter of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire before touching down.
Parts of the wilderness, he said, looked like a “moonscape.”
During his visit, Biden flew into Albuquerque and traveled by motorcade to the New Mexico National Guard complex in Santa Fe, where he was briefed on the wildfires and spoke to emergency officials.
The president’s visit comes amid deep anger in northern New Mexico at the federal government for its role in starting the massive wildfire and the limits on emergency aid offered to families who have lost homes and other property.
Biden acknowledged the limits – which include a cap on the money available for home repairs – during his remarks in Santa Fe, saying any New Mexican who received a denial letter would also get a follow-up phone call from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help them navigate the system.
“We’ll do whatever it takes, as long as it takes,” Biden said.
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire started as two separate blazes that merged in late April. They started as U.S. Forest Service burns.
The Governor’s Office estimates that the blaze, which has grown to 320,000 acres, has damaged or destroyed about 1,200 homes. The fire is now 70% contained.
Firefighting costs to date exceed $211 million.
Biden entered New Mexico’s emergency operations center a little after 4:30 p.m. and thanked the staff. Their work saves lives, he said, and it isn’t easy to do.
It’s vital, he said, for states to support each other in times of disaster.
“We are a federal system – that’s why I have no reluctance to do everything we possibly can to meet all of New Mexico’s needs and stay as long as it takes to meet those needs,” Biden said.
He said he and members of Congress understand the federal government must be more agile as it helps states recover from disasters.
His administration, he said, is allowing 100% reimbursement of costs where it has authority to do so.
In early May, Biden approved a major disaster declaration so that people affected by several New Mexico wildfires could begin getting federal assistance.
On Saturday, Biden increased the federal cost share to 100% for debris removal, emergency protective measures and direct federal assistance.
The money can also fund equipment and supplies for responders, evacuation shelters and traffic control, and firefighter field camps and meals.
With a giant fire map projected on the wall behind him, Biden spoke softly but grew animated when discussing what it’s been like in his career to address the families of firefighters who have died on duty.
Flying over the New Mexico damage, he said, made an impression.
The fire area, Biden said, was “so damn big we couldn’t go in.”
“We flew the perimeter of the fire,” he said. “It’s an astounding amount of territory.”
He repeatedly thanked firefighters and National Guard troops for their work.
Tell her ‘yes’
Air Force One touched down at Kirtland Air Force Base at about 1:45 p.m.
Biden was greeted by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and the state’s Democratic members of Congress.
Republican Congresswoman Yvette Herrell joined the rest of the delegation when Biden arrived in Santa Fe.
Kirtland officials, State Police, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho Police and Bernalillo County deputies also welcomed the president in Albuquerque.
The president’s motorcade departed the runway at 2:05 p.m., and Lujan Grisham joined the president for the drive to Santa Fe.
Biden joked in Santa Fe about Lujan Grisham’s persistence in seeking federal aid.
“I learned early on as president,” he said, “when the governor of New Mexico calls, just tell her ‘yes.'”
At one point, Biden appeared to be taking notes as Lujan Grisham addressed him and others in Santa Fe about the fire’s impact on New Mexicans.
This year is shaping up as New Mexico’s worst fire season. More than 611,000 acres have burned across New Mexico this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Hundreds of homes have already been destroyed, and thousands of New Mexicans have had to flee their homes.
The federal government has faced intense criticism for starting what is now the largest fire in state history.
In an interview, Las Vegas, New Mexico, Mayor Louie Trujillo, whose community has been on the frontlines of the wildfire, said he was “quite disappointed” the president wasn’t scheduled to visit the burn scar on the ground.
But he said he was thankful the president had made time to visit New Mexico and hear from local residents.
The federal government, Trujillo said, should acknowledge that the rural residents harmed by this year’s fires deserve to be taken care of the same way more affluent neighborhoods were after the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire.
“We’re no different than the richest county in New Mexico, which is Los Alamos,” Trujillo said in an interview. “We need to be indemnified fully for every single loss the people in northern New Mexico suffered.”
Biden said he supports legislation that’s modeled on the Cerro Grande compensation package, but he questioned whether it could make it through the U.S. Senate.
Amid the devastation in New Mexico, the Forest Service has since paused prescribed burns on forest lands. “We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Biden said.
Northern New Mexico communities face looming threats of floods and erosion even after the flames have been extinguished.
The blaze has burned in the watershed that supplies the city of Las Vegas.
Soil and trees in some areas have burned so severely that even minimal rainfall could send ash and debris into rivers and streams.
Communities below the burn scars face extreme flooding risk.
Several federal agencies are offering financial compensation for lost property and flood protection and funding for temporary housing.
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The president’s Santa Fe visit was met with a climate action rally by several environmental activist and Indigenous groups.
The groups argue that the federal government’s “inaction” to phase out fossil fuel production is contributing to more destructive wildfires caused by a changing climate.
At least three billboards along Interstate 25 to Santa Fe were spray-painted or covered with banners in advance of Biden’s wildfire briefing.
Banners read “Oil and gas fuel climate chaos,” “Protect our Pueblos. Climate Justice Now” and “Climate Emergency.”
Journal city editor Martin Salazar contributed to this report.