Senate decisively approves bill funding NM wildfire recovery efforts. Here's what's next: - Albuquerque Journal

Senate decisively approves bill funding NM wildfire recovery efforts. Here’s what’s next:

A washed-out culvert by the Rito San Jose near Upper Rociada is shown in this August 2022 file photo. A bill that would make up to $100 million in state funds available to begin repair work in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire burn scar won decisive approval Wednesday in the state Senate. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — While New Mexico waits for federal disaster relief funds to arrive, a bill that would allow public repair work in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire to start is halfway to the governor’s desk.

Senators voted 39-0 on Wednesday to approve the measure, Senate Bill 6, that would provide up to $100 million in zero-interest loans to counties and towns so they could start rebuilding local roads, culverts and acequias damaged by the double whammy of the wildfire and subsequent flooding.

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, one of the sponsors of the legislation, described the wildfire that scorched more than 340,000 acres as a life-changing incident that would have a ripple effect for generations.

He also lauded the state’s congressional delegation for securing nearly $4 billion in relief funds — in two separate packages — for wildfire victims, but said the distribution of money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken longer than many residents would like.

“The patience is running out,” Campos said during Wednesday’s floor debate.

A FEMA spokeswoman recently said no funding has been distributed yet, but said the agency has set a March target date to open a claims office for those impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, debates a bill to provide money for areas affected by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Seated are, from left, Ali Rye, deputy secretary for programs with the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; Rep. Ambrose Castellano, D-Serafina; and Rep. Joseph Sanchez, D-Acalde. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The fire, technically two separate fires that merged together, started last April after a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn during dry, windy conditions blew out of control. It ultimately became the largest wildfire in modern New Mexico history and burned more than 900 structures, including hundreds of homes.

Some lawmakers and local residents alike have expressed their displeasure with the federal agency, with Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, saying those responsible should be jailed and questioning why Attorney General Raúl Torrez’s office has not filed a lawsuit against the federal government.

“If that’s not mismanagement, I don’t know what is,” Brandt said before later adding, “If it was me who had lit that fire, I’d be in jail.”

The emergency state funding bill is one of several measures dealing with wildfires that have been proposed at the Roundhouse during this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Another proposal pending before the Senate would prohibit prescribed burns when the U.S. National Weather Service has issued a “red flag” warning about high winds and dangerous fire conditions, while a bill sponsored by Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, would appropriate $3 million for recovery efforts in the burn scar of the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest.

As for the bill aimed at recovering from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the authorized state funds would have to be spent on public infrastructure — not the rebuilding of personal property — due to a constitutional provision that prohibits public money from being transferred directly to people or businesses.

The bill, which is backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, now advances to the House of Representatives.

It also contains an emergency clause, meaning the bill would take effect immediately upon being signed, provided it passed both legislative chambers by at least a two-thirds vote margin.

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