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WED: Biden extends feds’ full wildfire coverage another 90 days, + More

Calf Canyon Burn Scar
Patrick Lohmann
/
Source NM
The burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire pictured Thursday, June 9, 2022.

Biden extends feds’ full wildfire coverage another 90 days - By Marisa Demarco, Source New Mexico

After a presidential declaration expired earlier this month leaving the state to cover a chunk of the costs from the wildfire in northern New Mexico, the White House announced Wednesday that the feds will pay that bill and all costs into November.

President Biden came to New Mexico this summer and said the federal government would pick up the whole tab for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire.

The U.S. Forest Service failed to put out all of the embers from one prescribed burn and lost control of another, starting the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Since a federal agency is responsible for that damage, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said, it should be the federal government that foots the bill.

Biden’s initial disaster declaration expired on Aug. 4, and the state became responsible for one-quarter of the costs. But the Governor’s Office said the president’s new order is retroactive, meaning the federal government will cover 100% of expenses for debris removal, direct federal assistance and emergency protective measures — even during that gap the last couple of weeks. The new declaration expires Nov. 4.

As of Sunday, the northern New Mexico wildfire still burned in spots, though officials announced it’s fully contained. It scorched 341,735 acres.

Earlier this month, Lujan Grisham called for the declaration’s sunset date to be pushed out, and she requested more money for housing assistance and dealing with flash floods. She also sought to include Sandoval and Los Alamos Counties in the list of impacted areas. All of those asks became part of the president’s amendment, according to the Governor’s Office.

Biden’s initial 90-day presidential declaration was meant to serve as a stopgap measure until Congress could pass a bill to help people who lost homes and livelihoods, and who remain in peril in the area because of flash floods and debris. But that hasn’t happened yet, and Congress has been in recess throughout August.

Over two decades ago, a bill to fully compensate fire victims in Los Alamos County was passed quickly during the Cerro Grande fire — also lit by the Forest Service.

Pecos River rises as New Mexico towns prepare for flooding - Associated Press

Authorities in eastern New Mexico on Wednesday warned residents of continued flooding along the Pecos River.

Storm runoff has led to historic flows, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flood warning for the area near Lake Arthur.

State emergency managers were monitoring the situation, and forecasters said that a significant crest of the river is still expected before the end of the week.

Some roads in Dexter and other communities have been closed due to the high water levels, and images shared on social media show standing water around homes in the rural area.

Some parts of New Mexico have had a robust monsoon, with daily thunderstorms dropping significant amounts of rain that have led to flooding, particularly across burns scars left by spring wildfires. The latest forecast called for rain chances to peak Friday as a disturbance moves east across the region.

Lawmakers to propose making pandemic rental assistance program permanent – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

A slate of housing reforms that would make it harder for landlords to evict people and make permanent the emergency rental assistance program necessitated by the COVID pandemic will be introduced in the 2023 legislative session, according to a presentation to lawmakers on Monday.

In 2021 and 2022, Reps. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) and Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) introduced a bill designed to balance the rights of tenants and landlords by amending the state Uniform Owner-Resident Relations Act.

The legislation would have allowed tenants 11 days to get current on rent, instead of three days currently allowed in the law.

It also would have allowed tenants three weeks to prepare for court and find legal help, instead of 10 days, and 15 to 20 days to get new housing and move if those people were evicted, instead of one week.

It also would have given tenants the opportunity to avoid eviction if they can pay what they owe at any point prior to eviction, require court summons to explain tenants’ rights and their option to get rental assistance, and prevent landlords from refusing to renew a lease during a declared state of emergency.

Both versions of the bill were widely supported by advocates, the Apartment Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said Maria Griego, director of economic equity at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, in a hearing with the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Monday.

In each of those years, the House of Representatives and the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee approved the legislation, “but it never made it to the finish line,” Griego said.

Karen Myers, a consumer lawyer in Albuquerque and former head of the Consumer Protection Division at the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, told lawmakers in early 2022 that the unprecedented financial assistance during the pandemic helped families throughout New Mexico preserve their housing and utilities.

Griego said on Monday there has been discussion at the federal level of making rental assistance a long-term federal program for states to administer, Griego said, and so there is a need for New Mexico to reform its laws to be prepared to effectively deliver that money.

So next year, Rubio and Romero will introduce the third iteration of the housing reforms which will codify into state law the rental assistance program currently administered by emergency rental assistance director Donnie Quintana through the Department of Finance and Administration.

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) said given that the House has passed the bill twice, it might have a better chance of passing if it goes to the Senate first. She suggested that Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) figure out who would be a good senator to sponsor the legislation.

Duhigg asked what lawmakers need to make the program workable in New Mexico.

Griego said the absolute need is extending the court hearing schedule timeframe longer than the current 7 to 10 day deadline.

Navigators in the program told Griego that often those hearings happen before seven days. Clerks get the filing and schedule the hearing on the same day, perhaps because they aren’t properly trained.

“We need more time before the judges must conduct the hearing,” Griego said.

That gives time for navigators to reach out to the parties and ask if they’ve applied for rental assistance, Griego said. If they haven’t, they can get them connected to the application and if they have, figure out what’s missing to get it approved. If it is approved, they can tell the landlord payment is on its way, which usually results in the landlord dismissing the eviction case, Griego said.

Program officials had compromised with the apartment association to allow 21 days instead of the maximum of 10 to schedule a hearing, Griego said, which would build in time for the parties to work with the navigators.

She said New Mexico was already in a housing crisis before the COVID pandemic, which compounded economic hardship for many New Mexicans.

Between 2018 and 2019, the rate of homelessness in New Mexico increased by 27%, the highest increase in the country. It also had the highest increase in chronic homelessness at 56% and some of the shortest eviction timelines for nonpayment of rent, Griego said.

“Courts have expressed existing timelines of 10 days to schedule hearings once filed make it impossible to implement programs known to be effective to prevent evictions,” Griego said.

The state’s Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program has been hugely successful. Ninety percent of cases that go to mediation end in a mutually beneficial agreement or settlement for landlords and tenants, Griego said.

According to the Princeton Eviction Lab, eviction rates in New Mexico are down from pre-pandemic levels. Griego said the decrease is entirely due to the Emergency Rental Assistance programs that have emerged and the newly implemented Eviction and Diversion Program.

New Mexico received $352 million from two federal spending bills for rental and utility assistance, Griego said, and delivered more than $152 million to 45,000 households for rent, utilities, and costs related to emergency housing and moving.

New Mexico has until September 2025 to use the federal money.

New Mexico Chief Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon spearheaded a program in New Mexico aimed to replace the state’s court-issued eviction ban. The program empowers judges to pause eviction proceedings if landlords and tenants agree to mediation and enlists a group of court navigators to help parties with emergency rental funds and court processes.

During a virtual White House event on Aug. 2, Bacon said eviction filings have stayed below average rates even though the state and federal eviction bans were lifted.

“In no way is the mission accomplished,” Griego said. “It would be a shame for our state not to capitalize on the great progress that has been made, and to not make this a lasting and sustainable program.”

NM universities raise awareness for monkeypox but haven’t set precautionary measures - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

College students all over the state are coming back to university campuses as school kicks off just a month after monkeypox was reported in New Mexico. But the largest institutions in Albuquerque and Las Cruces don’t have special measures set in place for the national public health emergency.

Instead, university officials are putting a lot of the responsibility on students to be mindful of the potential health risk.

The first case of monkeypox was found in New Mexico on July 11. About a month and a half later, that number has risen to 19 cases. There are over 15,900 confirmed cases throughout the U.S. and no deaths so far.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed the following symptoms for monkeypox:

  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle aches and backache
  • Headache
  • Respiratory symptoms (sore throat, nasal congestion or cough)

Symptoms typically start within three weeks of exposure. Not everyone has all the symptoms.
People who think they’re at risk for monkeypox can call the N.M. Department of Health at 1-855-3453 (option four) for a consultation or self-register online. Only those deemed highly at risk can get vaccinated.

The University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University have no precautionary measures set in place for monkeypox specifically.

Both Eastern and Western New Mexico Universities have isolated quarantine spaces available on campus that could be used for monkeypox if needed.

The lack of action by UNM and NMSU, the largest universities in the state, reflects the absence of state and national standards to follow for the health crisis.

Instead, most colleges are just sharing information about monkeypox to students, staff and faculty. UNM spokesperson Cinnamon Blair said the university’s goal is to address the false rumors about monkeypox spreading in the public.

UNM is also encouraging students to maintain rigorous health standards, Blair said. Western New Mexico University’s Betsy Miller, interim vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, responded similarly.

“The wellbeing of WNMU students is our top priority, and we hold that it is the responsibility of every (student) to maintain their own health and to do their part to protect their classmates, co-workers, teammates and peers,” Miller said via email.

NMSU’s Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor Jon Webster said monkeypox isn’t a concern right now. Blair agreed and said UNM will consult with health partners to set up safety measures later on if it becomes necessary. Both said the issue might become more concerning if cases rise.

“We’ve worked our way through it through an entire two years of COVID,” Webster said. “I have no doubt we could do it if we needed to with this same virus.”

Dr. Meghan Brett, epidemiologist with UNM Hospital, said this outreach is a good response so communities are attentive to symptoms like rashes or fever.

Limited vaccine availability

Currently, only people deemed highly at risk can schedule an appointment to get vaccinated. NMDOH spokesperson David Morgan said applicants will be screened for sexual history, travel and other things.

Right now, the state has about 1,000 Jynneos vaccine vials, he said, which can be enough for roughly 4,000 first and second doses.

But some other officials think more needs to be done. States Newsroom talked with Georges C. Benjamin, American Public Health Association executive director, who said colleges should be putting contingency measures in place and assuming they’ll have monkeypox cases.

“There’s nothing to say they’ll have big outbreaks, but all schools should assume that they’re going to have somebody on their campus that has monkeypox,” Benjamin said. “The outbreak is just too widespread for that not to be the case.”

Still, some universities are still struggling to cope with just one public health emergency. Jeff Long is the vice president for student affairs at Eastern New Mexico University and said the COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of their minds.

“Right now, we’re still dealing with COVID as students and faculty come back to campus,” he said.

But he said the university would transition to online classes if it comes to it. After COVID, many universities boosted their online presence and still have virtual options available for students.

CONTRACTING THE VIRUS

Many college students travel over summer break, and because New Mexico has the 15th-lowest case count in the country, students may come back from states with higher monkeypox cases.

But monkeypox doesn’t spread as easily as COVID, Brett said, and it’s most likely after skin-to-skin contact.

Because of this, Brett said traveling itself may not increase the risk of contracting monkeypox but rather the activities done while traveling. The virus can be contracted from unprotected sexual activities, she said. This may be prevalent on college campuses, which is why she said it must be discussed.

“This is where people need to continue to talk about what needs to be in place by way of safe sex practices,” Brett said.

She said communication with partners about rashes or exposures is meaningful as well as getting personal rashes checked out. “That’s important whether it’s monkeypox, syphilis, gonorrhea or other types of sexually transmitted infections,” she said.

Monkeypox can also spread through sharing objects, fabrics or surfaces with someone who has the virus. Dorms are one of the higher-risk settings the CDC lists where transmission may be more likely after someone contracts the virus. The center recommends testing residents who might have monkeypox, providing them with masks to wear and disinfecting areas.

Brett said contracting the virus through other commonly shared items on campuses like desks or equipment is less likely.

UNM and NMSU recommend students contact their health centers if they believe they’ve been exposed, though vaccines are only available through the N.M. Department of Health.

The quarantine for monkeypox is longer than COVID. The CDC says people should stay isolated while symptoms persist, which usually lasts two to four weeks — a prolonged period that could cause issues for students missing classes and work.

STIGMATIZATION

The majority of monkeypox cases are seen in men who have sex with other men, according to the CDC. This has caused issues of communities like gay men being stigmatized amid the crisis, though Brett said public health care workers are trying to avoid that.

“When in healcfcth care, we try to do our best, right, to treat everybody who comes to see us fairly and equally and hopefully without stigma,” Brett said.

She said the public should try to personalize how they think about who could contract the disease to avoid stigmatization. “The individuals who go on to develop monkeypox could be your brother or your son or someone else that you care about,” Brett said.

Blair said that there are mental health resources available at UNM for those struggling with anxiety around the issue and wants everyone to feel safe getting medical help if it’s needed. She added that the campus doesn’t create issues that would single out one community so everyone is supported.

“We want people to feel comfortable talking about it, going to a health care provider, not feeling bad about it,” Blair said. “It’s just coming on the heels of all the COVID stuff. It’s just one more thing.”

New Mexico won't deny law licenses over immigration status - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico will no longer deny licenses to practice law solely because of an applicant's citizenship or immigration status, including some aspiring law students who arrived in the U.S. as children and don't have a clear path to citizenship.

Announced Monday, the rule change from the New Mexico Supreme Court is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. Several states already have provisions that disregard residency or immigration status in licensure decisions.

"The change in the licensure rule is grounded in the fundamental principle of fairness, and is consistent with New Mexico's historical values of inclusion and diversity," Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said in a statement Tuesday.

She said the shift aligns New Mexico with recommendations by the American Bar Association and provisions in at least eight other states that provide attorney licensing to some immigrants. All applicants are still required to graduate from law school, pass the bar exam and undergo further character vetting by a board of bar examiners.

The rulemaking drew immediate criticism from state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, as GOP candidates challenge two incumbent state Supreme Court justices in the November general election.

"This is a reckless decision," Pearce said in a statement. "This latest rule will open our borders even more, and the court seems to relish making arbitrary decisions without thinking about consequences."

New Mexico previously required applicants for a law license to provide proof of citizenship, permanent resident status or work authorization.

Since 2017, the state judiciary has licensed some candidates based on work authorizations linked to an Obama-era program that has prevented the deportation of thousands of people brought into the U.S. as children.

Advocates for immigrant communities say that arrangement was threatened by efforts to do away with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — ruled illegal by a federal judge in Texas last year with a stay pending appeal at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Jazmin Irazoqui-Ruiz, a senior attorney at the New Mexico Immigration Law Center, was the first in the state to qualify for a law license through work authorization under the DACA program. She said the changes do away with an arduous process and law licenses that came with a stipulation.

"Immigration status won't be a barrier to obtaining your law license" now, said Irazoqui-Ruiz. "That opens up economic opportunity regardless of immigration status. ... It has an effect on family and community."

Recent University of New Mexico Law School graduate Luis Leyva-Castillo said new rules lift away clouds of uncertainty as he awaits results of his law certification exam — a final major hurdle to receiving a license.

Leyva-Castillo says he immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with family at age 8 and has relied on the DACA program to avoid removal as he earned a high school diploma at Ruidoso High School and two degrees from the University of New Mexico.

Now 25, he is preparing for work as a law clerk at the New Mexico Court of Appeals and said the licensing rule change "allows the state to use the immigrant community that we already have and integrate them into our workforce to prop up the economy. ... I think this really sends a message."

Record-setting wildfire in New Mexico declared contained - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

More than four grueling months and $300 million later, the federal government has declared the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history 100% contained, a notable milestone but just another step in what local residents and officials say will be a long journey toward recovery.

The blaze was sparked in the spring by two errant prescribed fires conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. More than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills burned, hundreds of homes were destroyed, livelihoods were lost and drinking water supplies were contaminated.

Local officials say there are years of work ahead of them to restore the landscape and protect against post-fire flooding.

San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley and her team have been working nonstop since the first plumes of smoke began rising from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They helped coordinate the evacuation of thousands of people from small mountain villages and worked with the state and the city of Las Vegas as flames approached.

With the summer rainy season in full swing, Ansley said parts of northern New Mexico are flooding on a weekly basis.

"It's going to be a long process and just because the fire is contained, we're certainly not out of the woods," she said Tuesday.

In addition to costs related to fighting the fire, federal emergency managers have paid out more than $4.5 million in aid to affected individuals and households and $6.7 million in low-interest loans for smalls businesses.

While more than 1,200 applications for individual assistance have been vetted, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would not say how many total applications have been received or denied.

Some residents have voiced frustrations about denials over a lack of having a street address for their rural properties. Others have complained that federal officials don't understand rural life in northern New Mexico and how fallout from the fire has affected them.

New Mexico's major disaster declaration has been expanded to include flooding, mudflows and debris flows directly related to the wildfires. Dasha Castillo, a spokesperson for FEMA, said residents who already applied for wildfire disaster assistance just need to update their original application to include flooding or other damage.

Castillo encouraged people to contact FEMA if they applied and haven't heard back.

Legislation is pending in Congress that would authorize full compensation for New Mexico residents and business owners for losses caused by the massive wildfire, but there's uncertainty about the ultimate price tag.

The scar left behind by the wildfire includes some areas that were reduced to ash and others where the severity was less intense. More than 400 firefighters are still assigned to the blaze and have been busy repairing hundreds of miles of fire lines cut to corral the flames, digging trenches to control erosion and removing fallen trees and other debris.

The U.S. Forest Service said helicopters will distribute about 138 tons of seed and 5,440 tons of mulch. So far, about 4 square miles have been seeded.

No hot spots have been reported for more than a month, but given the history of how the blaze started officials wanted to be confident when declaring containment, said Stefan La-Sky, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

"We don't take that number lightly," he said of the designation.

New Mexico marked an early start to what has been a devastating wildfire season across the U.S. with a deadly fire in Ruidoso and then the blaze near Las Vegas.

In all, federal fire officials report more than 9,372 square miles have burned since the start of the year to outpace the 10-year average, and predictions for more warm, dry weather mean some areas will see above-normal wildfire activity into the fall.

2 women arrested in alleged child abuse case in New Mexico - Associated Press

Two women in eastern New Mexico have been arrested for allegedly beating children in their care and chaining them to their beds to deny them food, authorities said.

Documents filed in Curry County Magistrate Court show 37-year-old Jayme L. Kushman and 29-year-old Jaime Kay Sena were both taken into custody Monday on 21 counts of suspected child abuse plus obstructing an investigation of child abuse.

It was unclear Tuesday if either woman has a lawyer yet who can speak on their behalf.

Authorities said children between the ages of 5 and 14 were living in with Kushman and Sena in a Texico home near the Texas border.

The children included Sena's kids, Kushman's family members and at least one foster child.

New Mexico State Police investigators say they uncovered videos of some of the children being chained by the ankles to their beds, allegedly to keep them from taking food from the kitchen when they were hungry.

Police said they also found filthy conditions in the home including no running water, a toilet backed up with human waste and bedrooms smelling of urine.

The New Mexico Child, Youth and Families Department alerted police about a possible child abuse case on July 22 and that began an investigation that resulted in the arrests.

Hopi teens see need for skateboarding park, make it happen - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

They skateboarded on basketball courts and in parking lots, through highway intersections and down roads that twist from the mesas that rise above the high desert.

They set up tricks with old railroad ties and lumber, sometimes using their own skateboards to move the materials in place. During a pandemic that led to lockdowns, curfews and mask mandates on the Hopi reservation, the solo nature of skateboarding was a comfort.

But the reservation that borders the northeast corner of Arizona lacked a designated skate spot. So a group of Hopi teenagers made it happen, seeing out a project they initially thought would take months and displaying the Hopi cultural value of sumi'nangwa — coming together for the greater good.

"I hope this will inspire other youth groups to try and do something like this to make the Hopi community a better place for the future generations of our people," said Quintin "Q" Nahsonhoya, one of a handful of co-leads on the project.

The skateboarding destination opened late this spring in the Village of Tewa. It's called Skate 264 for the highway that runs through the 2,500 square-mile (6,474-square-kilometer) Hopi reservation and connects the more than dozen villages. Kira Nevayaktewa came up with the logo that features a cat named "Skategod" that was part of the crew.

The youth group first wanted to ensure the community wanted a skate park, so they surveyed residents who overwhelmingly supported the idea. The group received a grant for branding, sold merchandise to raise money, secured a plot of land and got materials donated through partnerships.

Skate parks have popped up across Indian Country in recent years, many of them youth-led. Some host competitions like one on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota or the All Nations Skate Jam held during the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to much smaller spots like those on Hopi. Native Americans also have created their own brands of skateboards that feature traditional designs with modern twists. The sport that has Indigenous roots tied to surfing has gained even more acceptance since it debuted at the 2020 Olympics, said Betsy Gordon, who curated an exhibit on skateboarding in Native communities at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

"That gives it legitimacy in a lot of adult eyes, people who are making the rules or who fund (skate parks)," she said. "This sense of skateboarding being outsider and niche and oppositional and dangerous, I think it's really disappearing."

The creators of the Hopi skate spot — all teenagers when they started work in it in late 2020 — make it clear skateboarding is for everyone. Go at your own pace. Create your own style. No one is too good to fall, they say in an online Wipe Out Wednesday feature.

In one of their videos, someone picks up a skateboard for the first time, learns new tricks and is celebrated even when he doesn't land them.

"For Hopi, a lot of things have to do from the heart and not willing to give up," said Terrill Humeyestewa, one of the co-leads. "The skateboard is is kind of the same principle as that. Have a good mind, strong heart, think about what you're doing it for and everything will work out OK."

The co-leads, who also include Laela Nevayaktewa and Jacque Thorpe, have a mix of shy and outspoken characteristics. Each of them became comfortable talking with people outside their circle of family and friends. They got approval from the Village of Tewa for land to build the skate spot — no small feat on tribal land where development requires approval from clans, permit holders or the larger community.

The group raised money by selling beanies, stickers and shirts at roadside stands. Nahsonhoya's father, Brandon, and stepmother, Valaura, served as fiscal sponsors and created partnerships with a Phoenix-area skateboard company that donated the ramp and props, and others who donated concrete for the foundation. Other family members and the broader community helped with the manual labor, feeding the crew or providing guidance.

Some of the co-leads have graduated high school since starting the project, others are finishing up. While safety was a priority, they said they also wanted to bring joy to others through skateboarding, stay active and avoid bad influences.

"It keeps you from doing nothing with your time, and that's how I see Hopi and skateboarding coming together, filling your days and your time with something positive," Thorpe said.

Adult mentors lent their skills for video production, photography, graphic design and organizing to keep the group on track and encourage them.

"I didn't know about skateboarding, but what I do know is community organizing and local fundraising, and I have a lot of connections in the community, so I can figure it out with you guys," Samantha Honanie, a mentor, told the group.

"If they believed in themselves, we were going to walk them through this whole process," said Paul Molina, another mentor.

The Village of Tewa now is overseeing the park and eventually will have security guards to patrol the area. Village leaders are hoping to add lights and a basketball court alongside the softball fields for the youth, said Deidra Honyumptewa, chair of the village's board of directors.

"It's a huge testament to us leaders, or older people, that these kids can get things done and they see a need for it," she said.