Victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire seek to hold federal government accountable

Two law firms representing victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire announced on Monday that they have filed claims against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act on behalf of more than 2,000 New Mexicans as well as four public entities that were impacted by the wildfire. The Hermits Peak fire started in […]

Victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire seek to hold federal government accountable

Two law firms representing victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire announced on Monday that they have filed claims against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act on behalf of more than 2,000 New Mexicans as well as four public entities that were impacted by the wildfire.

The Hermits Peak fire started in April 2022 and later joined with the Calf Canyon Fire, which resulted from a winter slash pile burn that smoldered until spring winds caused it to spread. The combined wildfire became the largest in the state’s history and the U.S. Forest Service has taken responsibility for both blazes.

The U.S. Congress passed the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act in light of the damages caused by the out-of-control prescribed burns. This established a $3.95 billion fund to compensate people impacted by the fire. That fund is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

However, the law firms say only 10 percent of the funds have been disbursed and many of the people who were impacted “continue to languish with no end in sight.”

The delay in distributing funds and processing claims prompted Monday’s filings, the firms state.

“We were hoping to avoid taking this step. However, due to FEMA’s inexcusable delays and shocking failures to compensate victims for damages allowable under state and federal law, we are left with no choice,” Brian Colón, NM Managing Partner of Singleton Schreiber, said in a press release. 

Colón, a former State Auditor, said that the victims have two years to file claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the federal government for damages that the forest service caused. That means the clock is ticking down for people impacted by the wildfire. 

However, he said they remain hopeful that FEMA will begin processing claims in accordance with the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act. At the same time, he said they “simply cannot allow the clock to expire on victims’ ability to recover damages through the federal court system.”

“We hope that these filings will serve as a wakeup call to FEMA that victims of this fire will not stop fighting for justice and lawful compensation until every claim has been processed and fulfilled for all allowable damages,” Colón said.

Antonia Roybal-Mack, the founder and managing partner of Roybal-Mack & Cordova, said the government failed the people of northern New Mexico when it designated FEMA as the entity that would process the claims.

“FEMA has regularly violated peoples’ right to counsel and right to swift payment for losses. This filing preserves peoples’ legal right to seek recourse if FEMA continues to disregard basic legal rights,” she said.

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