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Heinrich says $2.5 billion in aid for northern NM fire victims major step in restoring region

New Mexico’s senior United States Senator said he expects the $2.5 billion in compensation for victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire will go a long way toward revitalizing a 500-square-mile section of northern New Mexico and life for those in it. 

The United States Senate on Thursday voted to approve a short-term spending bill that funds the government and other priorities, including the billions for New Mexicans hurt by the biggest fire in state history. The bill is expected to sail through the House of Representatives and to be signed by President Joe Biden before the Oct. 1 deadline. 

Heinrich, in a brief virtual news conference after the vote, said the compensation program is likely the biggest of its kind and was necessary given that the federal government was liable: The United States Forest Service, after all, ignited the colossal fire. 

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) speaks to reporters from his office during a virtual news conference Thursday. (Screenshot from news conference)
In the last days and hours of negotiations, he and other members of the congressional delegation worked to convince colleagues that it must be included and included now, instead of kicked down the road into other spending bills or legislation.

Even though he touted the $2.5 billion as a historic win for the victims, he said it’s possible it won’t go far enough. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of spending the $2.5 billion, estimated a full restoration might require $5 billion, Heinrich said. 

“If we need to go back to our colleagues and future funding cycles, whether that’s at the end of the year, or in the coming appropriations bill, we’re not going to be shy about doing that,” he said. “But first and foremost, we need to get this setup well, and get the money flowing into the community.”

Once it is enacted, FEMA will have 45 days to establish rules and procedures. It could take several weeks after that to get the program running, Heinrich said, and he did not provide an estimate about when the first payments might be made. 

“We’re going to be riding herd on that first 45 days to make sure that when they publish, it’s a program that makes sense for this particular community, because this funding is specific to this fire in these communities,” he said. “… We want to make sure this gets set up right to begin with, and then we want to start pushing the money out with the right safeguards.”

Many residents in the burn scar have complained about slow or inadequate responses by FEMA on a number of fronts, including acequia restoration, ongoing fire-related flooding, lack of housing, high denial rates and unnecessary bureaucracy. Heinrich said he thinks congressional oversight and this new program will finally give FEMA the right tools to compensate victims of the fire.

Heinrich has also co-sponsored a separate bill aimed at improving FEMA’s wildfire response. 

Still, he said he is confident that FEMA will be able to administer the $2.5 billion effectively. 

“FEMA doesn’t have a challenge spending resources. They have a cultural challenge around, historically, they weren’t really expected to incorporate the Western fire-then-flood scenarios into their disaster management,” he said. “And they still have a long way to go to prove that they can do that as well as we want them to, but they are also the only game in town.”

Kathryn Mahan believes her home in Las Dispensas was the first of more than 500 destroyed by the escaped prescribed burn that became the Hermits Peak wildfire in early April. She sought help from FEMA but was denied because the agency erroneously determined that her home was safe to occupy, even though it was only ashes and debris, among other incorrect reasons.

She eventually got the full compensation amount from FEMA – $40,000 – after a report by Source New Mexico and intervention by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez.

Mahan told Source New Mexico that news of billions coming to her area was a big relief.

“That’s really exciting,” she said. “… We were trying to have faith that this would happen.”

She and her family were considering moving out of state to avoid the harsh winter in their temporary housing, which is not insulated. Some cash soon might keep them in New Mexico, she said.

“It’s not winter-ready,” she said. “So the idea that we could actually live there the whole time would be really exciting.”

She did have some trepidation hearing that FEMA is the lead agency.

“I’m not sure who else would administer it,” she said. “We would hope that they would be able to do this a little more smoothly than what happened before. Our first reaction wasn’t, ‘Oh great! They were so great to work with last time.’”

But she said she remains hopeful. It’s a quality she says many of her neighbors have shown over the last few months, despite the circumstances.