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Federal legislation aims to improve FEMA response to wildfires

bill cosponsored by New Mexico’s United States senators aims to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency better help victims of wildfires. Such blazes are growing in number and intensity across the West. 

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) said Wednesday on the Senate floor that FEMA has gotten “pretty good” at responding to floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. He pointed to the amount of preparation in place of Hurricane Ian, making landfall in Florida as he spoke. 

“FEMA’s current procedures and requirements don’t always work for post-wildfire recovery needs,” he said. “This bill will close those gaps.”

The bill was introduced in October 2021, and New Mexico’s senators announced their support in April, just as the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire was ripping through the Santa Fe National Forest and forcing evacuations. It was heard Wednesday on the floor as it nears a possible vote. 

Padilla’s remarks came while the Senate is considering $2.5 billion in compensation for New Mexico victims of a botched federal prescribed burn. In the aftermath, people in the region have voiced ongoing concerns about FEMA’s response. 

The spending bill is still pending as of Wednesday at 6 p.m. In addition to the $2.5 billion, it also seeks to increase the amount FEMA can spend in disaster situations like wildfires. Some fire victims have received small amounts to help them recover in the immediate aftermath, including a maximum of $40,000 in compensation for a fully destroyed house. 

Padilla’s bill would let FEMA send resources to areas before fires even start. The agency would monitor red-flag warnings, which are called by the National Weather Service during periods of heightened wildfire risk. The agency already sends help before a hurricane lands. 

On the day the Santa Fe National Forest crew ignited prescribed burn that became a massive wildfire in N.M., areas nearby had red-flag warnings, and the 1,200-acre section of forest was red-flagged the two days prior. 

The bill would also make it easier for local governments to get access to FEMA funding. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that FEMA imposed “onerous documentation requirements for FEMA’s Public Assistance grant program and (had) difficulties locating alternative housing for survivors whose homes were completely destroyed,” according to a summary of Padilla’s legislation. 

Some fire victims told Source New Mexico that they were living in their cars, in their barns, in trailers or elsewhere while waiting for housing. And Paula Garcia, director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said FEMA imposed unnecessary hurdles in giving aid to local acequias through that grant program.

“The bill will help provide better housing assistance, case management and crisis counseling for survivors with a focus on equity for underserved communities and tribal governments,” Padilla said. 

Heinrich, in a statement at the time he cosponsored the legislation, said FEMA needs every resource possible to help wildfire victims. It’s known as the FEMA Improvement, Reform and Efficiency Act. 

“I’m looking for additional resources to combat elevating wildfire risks at the federal level,” he said. “That’s why I’m cosponsoring the FIRE Act to better prepare FEMA’s capabilities to prepare for and respond to wildfires in New Mexico.” 

The bill is expected to cost about $137 million over the next 10 years, including $69 million in additional spending, $51 million to increase the amount of time the state could bill for post-disaster building code inspections, and $17 million to build tribal emergency operations centers for the first time,  according to a recently completed analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.