by Andrew Hay
TIERRA MONTE, New Mexico (Reuters) – After the U.S. government started the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history in April, it is asking victims to share recovery costs on private land, which jeopardizes relief efforts, according to residents and state officials.
The fire was caused by fires prescribed by the US Forest Service (USFS) to reduce the risk of wildfires. The fires spiraled out of control after a series of missteps, setting fire to 432 residences and more than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of mostly privately owned forests and grasslands, much of it in the hands of members of Indo-Hispanic ranching communities. centuries old.
“Today I am announcing that the federal government will cover 100% of the cost,” President Joe Biden said during a visit to New Mexico in June. Biden was announcing a disaster declaration that covered debris removal and emergency protective measures.
But federal cost-sharing statutes in other federal aid programs are limiting Biden’s authority and exposing holes in the government’s safety net meant to help survivors and restore landscapes.
It’s a system more Americans will turn to as extreme fires and flooding become the norm in climate change.
“I DIDN’T CAUSE THIS DAMN FIRE”
Biden’s move was meant to tie together relief from FEMA and a congressional bill that may pass in the fall to provide 100% federal compensation for losses from the so-called Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon fire.
Daniel Encinias was one of the survivors who met with Biden and was told by USDA officials that he would receive timely support at little or no cost.
He, his wife Lori, three teenage children, four dogs and eight cats live in a trailer out of the ashes of their home in Tierra Monte, 35 miles northeast of Santa Fe.
Encinias submitted a request to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/nm/newsroom/releases/?cid=NRCSEPRD1923027 to fix his well , but was told to share 25% of the costs based on a federal statute that could not be waived since it did not fit into Biden’s statement.
Encinias said NRCS officials told him his application would be considered in September and reclamation work would begin six to 12 months later if he was accepted.
So, like many uninsured fire survivors in this low-income area, the retired rancher and electrician did the job himself.
“Why the hell am I going to pay anything if I didn’t cause this damn fire?” Encinias, 55, said as he fed his cattle hay that he was forced to buy after his baler burned down.
An official from the NRCS field office in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Encinias applied for support, directed questions to the national office. Officials there did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
UNCERTAIN TIMELINE FOR RECOVERY RELIEF
Many families affected by the fires cannot afford to share at least 25% of the costs of the USDA Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) https://www.fsa.usda.gov/Assets/USDA-FSA-Public/ usdafiles/FactSheets/emergency_forest_restoration_program- fact_sheet.pdf that offers relief, such as stabilization of burned areas prone to flash flooding, according to New Mexico State Ranger Laura McCarthy. Residents sometimes own large areas of land inherited from the Spanish-Mexican land grants of the 1800s while working manual jobs.
“They are really struggling,” McCarthy said.
That has left locals, state officials and federal agencies counting on cost sharing being eliminated and the bill passed by Congress.
Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández sponsored the legislation passed by the House and will likely need the help of Republicans in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Leger Fernandez is in talks with the USDA and the White House to reduce cost sharing and helped negotiate a waiver with the NRCS for flood mitigation work on private land.
“The federal government burns your house, so in my opinion it is responsible for paying 100% of the cost of reconstruction,” said Leger Fernandez.
Support can’t get to the 45-mile-long disaster area fast enough.
The fire burned about 170 acres (68.8 hectares) of rancher Kenny Zamora’s forest. He’s grasslands in El Turquillo are covered with up to 2 feet of mud after monsoon rains triggered debris flows on hillsides that no longer absorb water. The torrents have twice knocked down fences.
Zamora, a retired USDA Rural Development employee, requested support from the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) to feed his cattle.
The FSA office in Las Vegas told him he was not eligible. USDA officials told him that the EFRP for the area has not yet been funded. He is paying for the recovery work himself.
“If you don’t have insurance, you’re pretty much on your own,” said Zamora, 59, who like Encinias is considering joining a massive civil case that may be brought against the USFS.
The FSA office in Las Vegas directed questions to State Executive Director Jonas Moya, who did not respond to a request for comment. The FSA national office did not respond to requests for comment.
Climate change is making wildfires worse, as ecosystems no longer have natural protections, like cooler nights, to slow their spread. Destroyed landscapes are also less able to handle other disasters, such as flooding https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_flood-after-fire_factsheet_nov20.pdf.
Two women and one man died https://www.reuters.com/article/new-mexico-wildfire-idAFL1N2Z400C after a flash flood swept through the burn scar northeast of Las Vegas on July 21.
In Tierra Monte, ash flows threw rocks under the Encinias trailer and drowned livestock.
So far, FEMA has awarded $4.2 million to 1,164 fire survivors, representing an average payment of $3,600. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that FEMA granted her request to extend Biden’s declaration to residents who suffered damage from flooding and debris flows in wildfire scars.
For now, the Encinias family is surviving on a maximum payment of $37,000 from FEMA for the loss of their 5-bedroom home. They also lost eight acres of forest, farm equipment, and cars.
“I hope that eventually something works where it helps people,” Encinias said.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Tierra Monte, New Mexico; additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Donna Bryson and Josie Kao)