As the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire continues to grow, New Mexico’s Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to increase the aid available to people who have lost their homes, businesses and other property.
The joined fires have now grown to be the largest wildfire in state history at 259,810 acres. Tens of thousands of New Mexicans have been forced to leave their homes. More than 200 people have lost their homes.
The Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act would set up an Office of Hermits Peak Fire Claims within the Federal Emergency Management Agency to process claims of property loss, business loss and financial loss.
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said that, if passed, the legislation would increase the amount of federal assistance that New Mexicans impacted by the fire can receive and would make sure the federal government takes responsibility for its role in starting the fire. The Hermits Peak Fire began as a prescribed burn conducted by the U.S. Forest Service that got out of control. Later it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire.
From a property perspective, Luján said the bill would help people who are uninsured or underinsured who lose property to the fire or whose property decreases in value. He said it would also help Native American communities whose tribal subsistence, such as hunting, fishing, gathering firewood or grazing, has been impacted by the fire.
From a business perspective, Luján said it would help people who have lost tangible assets or inventory as well as those who have experienced interruptions in business, such as having to temporarily close shop, because of the fire.
Finally, from a financial loss perspective, Luján said the bill would help people who have not been able to work due to the fire. It would also provide for assistance with mortgages, insurance deductibles, temporary living or relocation costs, emergency staffing and debris removal.
“It’s another tool that can provide support to families immediately,” he said. “Introducing it is the first step and I need to earn votes from fellow senators and House members to get this done.”
The introduction of the bill comes after President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration last week.
Luján said after the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 then U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, who was a Republican representing New Mexico, pushed through a similar bill to provide assistance to the people who were impacted.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Theresa Leger Fernández, who represents New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, also spoke about the Cerro Grande Fire, which burned in Los Alamos County. Like the Hermits Peak Fire, the Cerro Grande Fire was caused by a prescribed burn that got out of control. She said that in the same way the federal government compensated Los Alamos County residents following the Cerro Grande Fire, the residents of Mora and San Miguel counties should be compensated for losses caused by the Hermits Peak Fire.
“Everyone in New Mexico is grieving over the loss of our beautiful forests, communities and memories, from Gallinas canyon to the meadows and mesas in Mora where cattle and elk grazed, and the streams that nourished our acequias and farmlands,” she said. “We will not replace in our lifetimes the forest landscape. But the federal government can and must take responsibility for the harm the prescribed burn unleashed on our homelands.”