Southeastern Taos County residents have been skeptical they would receive compensation for damages incurred during the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak wildfire and the floods that followed, but the federal government is pledging to provide assistance under the $2.5 billion Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced last week that it had published its Interim Final Rule for administering the federal Act, which promises to fully compensate "each injured person," regardless of whether they reside within one of the counties where formal disaster declarations were made earlier this year.
"This does change the landscape," said New Mexico wildfire attorney Antonia Roybal-Mack, who noted that "litigation is not off the table. They will get assistance through the act, but they're going to be in line."
Meanwhile, grassroots organizations, like the Mora San Miguel Long Term Recovery Group, are actively connecting wildfire victims with money and resources, helping identify state and federal programs that can help them, and coordinating rebuilding efforts. For more information, check out hermits-peak-calf-canyon-fire-resources-nmhu.hub.arcgis.com for more information, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández said Taos County residents — and others affected by the wildfire — won't be left out of the new federal program.
"Unlike the FEMA emergency assistance, the Hermits Peak Bill is intended to pay for what was lost, and is not limited to providing emergency relief," Leger Fernández said in a statement to the Taos News. "Because of this, it will pay for lost income, lost cabins or second homes, and for ranching, forest and grazing losses, as examples. Also, it will pay you for losses no matter where your primary residence is. So for example, if you live in Taos, but your property in Mora was destroyed, that will be covered. This is what justice looks like; the United States has taken responsibility for the fires, and we have begun the process to process and pay claims."
By publishing its final interim rule for administering the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance dollars, FEMA signaled the opening of a 60-day public comment period that extends through Jan. 13, as well as the opening phase of the applications process during which those seeking compensation must submit their initial "Notice of Loss" form.
Antonia Roybal-Mack, a New Mexico attorney representing hundreds of wildfire victims, said it is crucial that Taos County residents and others impacted by the fire submit their Notice of Loss forms, which "must provide a description of each injury," i.e. a detailed list of damages with evidence.
She also emphasized the importance of submitting public comments on the interim rule, which, she explained, currently mirrors FEMA's emergency regulations in some respects, meaning it contains some caps and caveats on compensation. Commenters have the ability to influence the final regulations under which the $2.5 billion will be distributed.
For example, according to the current interim rule, "Compensation for the replacement of destroyed trees and other landscaping will not exceed 25 percent of the pre-fire value of the structure and lot."
"The regulations' caps on recoverable damages conflict with the express terms of the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act and New Mexico State Law," Antonia Roybal-Mack said.
There are, however, other opportunities, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Forest Restoration Program, which, according to a fact sheet, will pay "eligible owners of nonindustrial private forest land" up to 75 percent of costs to implement an approved restoration project, "in order to carry out emergency measures to restore land damaged by a natural disaster." The program is limited to $500,000 per person or legal entity per disaster.
Leger Fernández addressed the unique situation posed by the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak Fire and its aftermath, as well as the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act itself.
"This is historic legislation because of its size and the number of traditional communities who will receive compensation," she said. "Now, we need to make sure it works."
Leger Fernández went on to address concerns that federal claims administrators won't be capable of evaluating Northern New Mexicans' unique circumstances and losses. Many wildfire victims are descended from families who have subsisted on the land and forests for hundreds of years. Many didn't have property insurance and some did not have deeds to their land or homes, which were passed down through generations stretching back to the Spanish colonial era.
"For months, I heard stories from students, ranchers, acequia members, and families who shared how the fires and floods ravaged their treasured places where they expected to see future generations thrive," she said. "I’ve seen the damage, felt the pain, and heard the sorrow. I am from these communities. This is my home.
"I am urging the Hermits Peak Claims Office to hire New Mexicans who understand the unique challenges and culture of the affected communities as claims are filed, reviewed, and ultimately determined," Leger Fernández continued. "I am also working to make sure the Claims Office hires navigators to help New Mexicans file claims, appraise and provide valuations and receive compensation as easily and as quickly as possible.”
According to a page on FEMA's website, affected tribal entities will be consulted as well.
"A virtual government-to-government consultation with the Tribal Nations that have been impacted by the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak Fire and whose tribal entities, tribal corporations, or tribal members have been impacted by the fire," the information page states, adding that a virtual meeting with tribes is set to take place Dec. 9.
Because damages in Taos County did not meet the threshold of a disaster, residents affected by the wildfire aren't eligible for compensation under FEMA's emergency assistance program; and within the more-severely-burned counties, damages are capped under FEMA's original statutory responsibilities.
The 341,735-acre wildfire, the largest in New Mexico's history, was sparked by two out-of-control U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns that merged on April 22. It swept across San Miguel County and Mora County, burning into a portion of Taos County in May. While no structures were lost, huge swaths of forest burned in Taos County, damaging watersheds and resulting in lost business income and unforeseen expenses due to evacuations and temporary loss of electricity.
FEMA’s Interim Final Rule guides the claims process and describes necessary documentation, evaluation criteria and compensation available for those impacted by the fire and subsequent flooding. The rule also provides additional guidance for appeal rights, arbitration and judicial review.
The Notice of Loss form can be found at fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_notice-loss-hermits-peak-fire-form.pdf; completed forms should be returned by email to email@example.com, or the FEMA Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office, P.O. Box 1329, Santa Fe, NM 87504. The FEMA Claims Office is expected to be fully operational in early 2023, which is when they will begin to respond to claims.
Once the Claims Office receives the Notice of Loss form, claimants have 150 days to sign a Proof of Loss form. Once FEMA receives the Proof of Loss form, they will have 30 days to determine the amount to be paid to the claimant.
FEMA will hold three more in-person public meetings, all of which will take place between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., in order to solicit public feedback about the Interim Final Rule:
• Dec. 1 at Mora High School, 10 Ranger Road, Mora;
• Dec. 15 at Old Memorial Middle School, 947 Legion Drive, Las Vegas;
• January 5 at Mora High School, 10 Ranger Road, Mora.
Visit fema.gov/disaster/current/hermits-peak for more information.