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Ahead of presidential visit, questions on federal fire response

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham surveyed homes in Sapello and Rociada that have been damaged or destroyed by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire on June 7
via the Office of the Governor
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham surveyed homes in Sapello and Rociada that have been damaged or destroyed by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire on June 7

On the edge of a forest in Mora County, the U.S. Forest Service's Burned Area Emergency Response team is assessing how badly the soil is burned in the northern part of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire.

"I've seen a lot of moderate and high soil burn severity," said team lead Micah Kiesow. The team is in the second phase of their assessment of how badly the fire was burned.

Usually this kind of work is done once the fire is fully contained, but with the likelihood of summer monsoon rains in New Mexico, Kiesow said the team moved first into the southern part of the fire for an assessment of about 115,000 acres, followed by this northern zone of about 190,000 acres, even though the fire is still only about two-thirds contained. The second phase is due to be completed in the next few days.

A soil scientist on the team, Kit MacDonald, explained to journalists that rain sweeps up burned soil, especially on steep slopes such as the surrounding Sangre de Cristo mountains. The soil makes the water denser and more powerful as it sweeps downhill.

"You've got more and more power of that water to move material," he said. "And then it can affect infrastructure. It can affect roads. It can affect water supply, intakes, municipal watersheds."

But Kiesow said as yet no physical flood mitigation measures, like barriers, have been put in place.

"We're waiting on the funding and the process of getting everyone's recommendations together," he said, "which takes time, and to have it approved." He said some measures have to be approved by officials in Washington, DC, before they can be implemented.

Although summer rains are tentatively forecast to begin in about two weeks, he said, the team cannot do "implementation for implementation's sake. We really need to have a solid plan. The science to back it and the know-how that the effectiveness will be there."

But ahead of President Joe Biden's visit to Santa Fe Saturday, to be briefed on New Mexico's unprecedented fire season, many residents and state officials question whether the federal response to the state's largest-ever fire has been sufficiently robust and swift.

Foremost among those questioning voices has been Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who spoke to KUNM during a visit to Mora County on June 7. She said the risks of flooding are too high to wait for the Forest Service to take action.

"The state's going to frontload. I don't have time to wait for the Feds," she said, adding she had assigned an interagency group including the National Guard, the Department for Homeland Security and the Department for Transportation to put barriers in place.

"My expectation to the state team was, 'get it done. You have 14 days,'" she said.

The Governor has already called on the federal government to shoulder the costs of the damage from the fire, because it was started when planned burns got out of control. She says she hopes to reclaim the cost to the state of items including flood barriers, and will raise this during tomorrow's Presidential visit.

"He's going to get an in person briefing about, that's my expectation," she said. "And I have to say they are not balking. I mean, they put in writing this is their liability. They're clear that a lot of other stuff's got to happen. But it is a giant government system with significant flaws."

Another part of that system is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which can give grants to cover expenses including home repairs or evacuation expenses not covered by insurance.

A few weeks ago, the agency's Administrator Deanne Criswell, visiting Santa Fe, acknowledged in her experience in a rural area people might not, for example, have conventional paperwork.

"Many families that have inherited their property over the generations did not necessarily have an official deed. And in the past we were denying them assistance," she said, adding that the agency should be flexible.

But, Jason Griego, who leads a community donation distribution center in Mora County, said the FEMA process has not been intuitive for people he knows

"The people that I've talked to, are saying well, we filled out the forms and we've heard nothing," he said. Plus, "many of them are saying, well, we got denied. It says that we're denied."

A spokesperson for FEMA said on June 7 that nearly $2.8 million has been approved for 913 applicants for help. Another 558 have been found ineligible and 789 have been asked for more documents.

The agency has set up field offices to help people apply, but Griego said the employees there weren't able to explain the denials process to him as he tried to help others in the community with the documents.

"I mean, when they can't give you an explanation, you try to explain that to people 60, 70, 80 years old that lost their house or property," he said.

FEMA spokesperson Dasha Castillo said there might be a lag in people applying, because they might have to speak to their insurance companies before applying. She said that there is legal aid for people who don't have deeds to their houses. And she said people whose applications are denied should appeal.

"Once you receive this type of letters, it's very important to review the entire letter. You can call the FEMA helpline directly and you can review your case," she said.

When the president visits Saturday, he is due to meet first responders and local officials as well as FEMA at the New Mexico State Emergency Operation Center.

This content is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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