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Spending bill could provide $1.45B in relief for victims of largest wildfire in New Mexico history

An appropriations bill expected to be voted on in Congress this week would funnel another $1.45 billion in relief to victims of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

Democratic members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation announced that the money was included in a disaster supplemental section of the $1.7 trillion spending package.

The additional money means there would be $3.95 billion allocated to fund the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act. That act was passed in a continuing resolution in September.

“We knew that our communities needed more than the earlier $2.5 billion to recover from the devastating wildfires and floods that have ravaged our beautiful communities, forests and acequias. It will also pay to replace the damaged Las Vegas water treatment facility and make sure residents of my hometown have access to clean water,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., said in a statement. “This additional funding is what justice looks like – the federal government is taking responsibility for the harm it caused, and answering the stories, voices and calls for help to rebuild.”

Congress is expected to vote on the bill later this week. Though Republican senators who helped negotiate the bill said it marked a GOP victory, some House Republicans have threatened to oppose the legislative priorities next year of any senators who vote for the bill. The next likely speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, also signaled opposition to the bill on social media, according to the Associated Press.

But New Mexico Democrats rallied behind the bill, in part for the money it will send to the state for relief for the massive fire.

The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon 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 in northern New Mexico. 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.

“The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and it displaced thousands of New Mexicans for weeks and months on end. Their incredible resilience and willingness to serve their neighbors in such a difficult time embodies the best of what it means to be New Mexican,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement. “That’s why we fought so hard to secure additional funding for New Mexicans to rebuild in the aftermath of the worst fire in our state’s history.”

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 does not fully reimburse people after natural disasters.

New Mexico had a frenetic 2022 fire season. It got off to an early start when the McBride Fire killed two people and destroyed more than 200 homes near Ruidoso. The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned for more than four months and there were deaths in Las Vegas from flash floods that followed the blaze. The governor’s office has previously estimated the fire complex destroyed more than 1,000 homes or other structures.

Three people from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and a Bernalillo County firefighter died in a helicopter crash after fighting a fire in July.

“We know that nothing can replace what has been lost in these fires, but are grateful our federal agencies are stepping up and that this funding will help our resilient communities and families to rebuild,” Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., said in statement.