$2.5 billion for fire damage relief included in spending bill - Albuquerque Journal

$2.5 billion for fire damage relief included in spending bill

Firefighter Eric Garcia surveys a home burned by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in the Morphy Canyon as a plume of smoke rises over the Pecos Wilderness. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a funding bill that contains $2.5 billion of relief for the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire – a massive amount of money for northern New Mexico residents impacted by the largest fire in state history.

Senators advanced the bill on a 72-25 vote. The money is almost certain to get final approval. The Democrat-controlled House, which has previously supported the fire relief package, is scheduled to vote on the bill Friday morning before it heads to the president’s desk. The legislation, also called a continuing resolution, needs to be signed into law by midnight Friday to avert a government shutdown.

The New Mexico aspect of the legislation calls for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create a program specifically for Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire victims within 45 days. People, businesses and other groups, such as acequias, can then apply for relief.

The two fires started as Forest Service burns that broke containment and merged in April, scorching about 534 square miles of national forest, Pecos Wilderness and private land. That’s an area more than twice the size of Chicago. New Mexico lawmakers had argued that, because the federal government was responsible for the fires, the government should have to fully compensate the victims.

Insured and uninsured property loss, lost wages, reforestation costs, business interruption loss, insurance deductibles, new flood insurance needed for area residents and other financial impacts to northern New Mexico communities will be covered. Traditionally, FEMA doesn’t fully reimburse people after natural disasters.

“I can tell you that the entire congressional delegation bent every single ear they could think to bend over the course of the past couple of months. And it all came together today,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “So, we now have a mechanism to do a much better job of making whole all of those residents of northern New Mexico who have been through hell and back.”

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., sponsored the original legislation, which was modeled after a bill passed in 2000 after the Cerro Grande Fire, which burned land around Los Alamos.

Luján said the delegation originally tried to include the fire relief package in a defense bill. They then negotiated to fold it into a continuing resolution that will keep the government running for several months.

“The challenge is that this was specific to New Mexico,” Luján said. “And this had only been done once before.”

Leger Fernández said that northern New Mexico residents who may have been frustrated with applying for assistance from FEMA should notice a change in the process once the specific program for the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is launched.

“What this bill is, is a recognition that the United States must take responsibility for the harm that was caused,” she said. “And that it must pay compensation for the harm they caused. And so that is different than a regular disaster.”

In what is often a Congress sharply divided along party lines, both sides of the aisle supported the relief for New Mexico. Luján and Leger Fernández credited Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., for wrangling GOP support for the proposal, and Heinrich noted that many Republican senators supported the measure.

“We do need to meet these natural disasters together,” Heinrich said. “They hit red states and they hit blue states.”

Herrell said that, although she was proud to help fund the relief for New Mexico, she’s still on the fence about how she’ll vote on Friday.

“I am proud to have worked across the aisle with my colleagues to compensate people hurt by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire caused by the Forest Service, and I am glad that this compensation was just passed by the Senate,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the (entire bill) is also a government spending spree during a time of record inflation, throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at illegal immigrants without securing the border, and billions more overseas to Ukraine without transparency, so I will need to consider carefully before I vote for the final version.”

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said the city has a long list of expensive projects that are needed. For example, he said the city’s water treatment center needs extensive work, as does the Gallinas River, which feeds into it.

Trujillo said the city’s current system can’t clean the Gallinas River water because it’s filled with ash and debris due to the fire.

“We’re going to need every cent,” he said. “All the projects are very costly. And it’s nothing that the city could afford with our budget. So, we’re definitely going to rely on the federal money to complete these projects.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also praised the Senate’s passage of the bill.

“This critical funding is the result of our relentless efforts to hold the federal government accountable and ensure that New Mexicans impacted by the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires are made whole,” she said in a statement. “For months, I have worked tirelessly and joined with the state’s congressional delegation to push the federal government to take responsibility and provide financial support for New Mexicans affected by the fires, which the federal government admitted were caused by the U.S. Forest Service.”

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