New Mexico Officials: FEMA Delays Lead to Mistrust Among Wildfire Victims

By Susan Montoya Bryan | May 12, 2023

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are criticizing federal emergency managers for missing deadlines as residents seek recovery assistance following the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history.

It has been a year since the U.S. Forest Service sparked the blaze after two prescribed-burn operations meant to clear dead and overgrown vegetation went awry. Hundreds of homes were destroyed along with the livelihoods of many rural residents who are now bracing for another season of post-fire flooding.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the agencies need to finalize regulations for doling out nearly $4 million in recovery funds to families and businesses.

Without the final rules, they say justice for victims is being delayed, resulting in confusion and uncertainty for residents.

The lawmakers also said FEMA has missed a number of self-imposed deadlines, and that has deepened mistrust with the community.

“Every day that passes without compensation to the victims delays their ability to begin rebuilding after losing so much,” the letter states. ”We ask that you put yourself into the shoes of those who’ve waited more than a year after the fire started.”

FEMA opened its regional claims offices to the public in recent weeks, and the director, Angela Gladwell, has vowed that her staff will “be here until the job is done and every claimant receives the compensation they’re due.”

Regional FEMA officials did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment about the lawmakers’ letter or the timing for finalizing the regulations.

The New Mexico officials indicated that the delay was related to reconsideration of provisions that deal with compensation for trees that were burned on private property and compensation for risk reduction. They have argued the language was a holdover from a different catastrophe that affected suburban homes, not an economy based on forest.

“We reiterate the importance of removing these caps. It is vitally important that our communities are able to begin restoring their lands and begin mitigation efforts to protect their homes and properties from future flooding or fire,” the letter reads.

Leger Fernández and the two senators requested that FEMA and Homeland Security provide an update, saying many victims still are without permanent homes and the anticipated flooding this summer will make matters worse.

Fire danger also remains high across parts of New Mexico despite above-average snowpack in the higher elevations. Red flag warnings prompted by strong winds and dry conditions were issued for much of the state Wednesday, as crews battled a new fire near the burn scar.

The blaze near Sapello sent up a large plume of smoke, prompting road closures and evacuations.

The National Park Service on Wednesday cancelled its plans for a prescribed fire at El Malpais National Monument, citing the deteriorating weather conditions.

Top photo: A sign warning of flooding is located within the burn scar of the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history near El Porvenir, New Mexico, April 12, 2023. Lawmakers from several western states want the U.S. Forest Service to do more to address a wildfire crisis that they say will surely destroy more landscapes, communities and livelihoods. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

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