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New Mexico delegation seeks changes to wildfire aid rules

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s congressional delegation says the U.S. government should make changes to rules proposed for processing damage claims stemming from a historic wildfire sparked by forest managers.

The delegation sent a letter to FEMA on Thursday as the federal agency prepares to wrap up public comment on the rules. The delegation noted that unlike a more affluent part of New Mexico that was devastated by a government-sparked wildfire in 2000, this part of northern New Mexico is more rural, has higher poverty rates and a high percentage of Spanish speakers.

The delegation also said many residents are still reeling from the emotional, financial and physical tolls of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and that post-fire flooding has been a big concern for the mountainous areas.

“By providing thorough guidance and adding claims navigators early in the process, FEMA can ensure that claimants have the necessary resources in place to help them quickly and accurately assess the damages and repairs needed to move forward and receive the compensation as authorized by Congress,” the delegation wrote.

The New Mexico attorney general’s office also has sought changes to the proposed rules. Then-Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose term ended in December, had outlined concerns over limitations on damages, the lack of a clear appeals process and leadership of the team that will oversee the claims process.

In their letter, U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury and Gabe Vasquez pointed to language that caps compensation for the replacement of destroyed trees and other landscaping at 25% of the pre-fire value. They said this does not take into account the degree of damage or the effort required to remediate the damage.

“It is important that adequate resources are devoted to restoring the environment and the livelihoods of those affected,” their letter reads.

The 25% cap also requires FEMA to inspect property and prove whether a tree was used for landscaping, business, or subsistence and calculating entire property value on lands where it otherwise might not be necessary.

The lawmakers say this contradicts the intent of the relief act to provide a “a simple, expedited process.”

A final public meeting is scheduled for Monday in Angel Fire. The online comment period will close Jan. 13.

Numerous missteps by the U.S. Forest Service resulted in prescribed fires erupting last spring into what became the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history. The blaze forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from villages throughout the Sangre de Cristo mountain range as it burned through more than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The fire forced the Forest Service to review its prescribed fire polices before resuming operations last fall, and experts have said the environmental consequences will span generations.

During a public forum FEMA hosted on its proposed claims process in November, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported many people affected by the fire and flooding asked officials to provide some leeway on the very points outlined by the congressional delegation.

Residents and elected officials also have asked for FEMA to hire as many New Mexicans as possible to staff claims offices in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Mora. FEMA has held job fairs to fill the positions, with a third planned for Tuesday in Mora.