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Fire victims face long wait for compensation, consider legal action

Rancher Peter Velazquez with his cattle in Mora
Alice Fordham
Rancher Peter Velasquez with his cattle in Mora

On a recent morning in the town of Mora, rancher Peter Velasquez called to about 20 cows and calves in a field right next to his neat house, its porch vibrant with flowers.

He shook feed out of a sack, while the cattle followed him around, huffing and mooing. From here in the valley, he can see the high ground on the mountainside where the cows would usually be this time of year.

He pointed out an area called Rio de la Casa. He has a permit from the Santa Fe National Forest to graze there. While the cows are on the high ground, he grows alfalfa to make hay for the winter in the valley.

This year, those mountains are covered in burned patches from the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire, the state's largest, and the U.S. Forest Service has forbidden grazing. There is probably still edible vegetation, said Velasquez, but, "there's no fences for us. They're all burned."

Now, he gives the cattle hay and feed every day, and has nowhere to grow alfalfa for the winter. His costs are mounting.

"This fire has really set us back, life-changing for sure," he said.

And so far, Velasquez said he has received little help. He is not eligible for the disaster assistance FEMA has made available for victims of the fire, because his home was unaffected. He said the New Mexico Livestock Board gave him 12 bales of hay, which did not last long.

Standing in the field, looking at burn scars, he echoed local consensus that when two planned burns carried out by the U.S. Forest Service combined to become a vast wildfire it, "really did a number to a lot of permittees and to a lot of small ranchers."

When President Joe Biden visited the state last month, he pledged more support.

"We have a responsibility to help the state recover, to help the families who have been here for centuries," he said.

But whether the government compensates people like Velasquez for all his losses is a question bound up with legislation inching through Congress, and with local plans for legal action.

So far federal assistance has focused on measures like fire suppression, debris clearance and reseeding. As Biden pointed out during his visit, full compensation for victims would require the passage of a law similar to one passed after the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which began as a planned burn, and destroyed about 280 houses and parts of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Back then, the initial budget allocation for compensation was $455 million. For comparison, as of July 11 this year, FEMA said it had granted less than $4 million to 1,117 fire victims.

Anita Ross sits outside the burned remains of her former home outside the town of Mora
Alice Fordham
Anita Moss sits outside the burned remains of her former home outside the town of Mora

Full compensation would make a big difference to someone like artist and teacher Anita Moss, whose home and studio in the forests outside Mora burned into a pile of twisted junk. Because she had homeowner's insurance, she was not eligible for FEMA assistance, but her insurance did not cover 30 years' of art supplies which she used for her work and for teaching, as a volunteer in this poor area.

"I had a lot of supplies, but they were all categorized," she said, looking at her former home. "So if I want to teach a class on paper making, bam, I got my stuff. And I'm just going to have to reassess all that."

The New Mexico congressional delegation has worked to include the fire assistance legislation as an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill granting hundreds of billions of dollars of funding. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández sponsored it in the House of Representatives, where it passed on July 14. But the law must also make it through the Senate, where Sen. Ben Ray Luján has sponsored it, and even if successful is unlikely to be signed by the President before the end of the year.

Even if the law passes, although funding would be unlocked, timing could still be an issue. After the Cerro Grande fire, FEMA oversaw the rebuilding of many homes, but two years on, some people were still living in trailers. A government report from 2003 documents lingering unpaid claims.

And in the three counties in northeastern New Mexico worst hit by the fire - Mora, San Miguel and Taos - many fire victims do not have the capital to wait out hard times.

"I think there's a lot of us that are probably going to have to sell," said Velasquez, the rancher. "Myself, I might have to get rid of half [my herd]."

Some people are considering legal action, in case the legislation does not pass. Antonia Roybal-Mack, a lawyer in Albuquerque, grew up in Mora and several family members lost land in the fire. She is preparing a mass tort case against the Forest Service.

She has begun by requesting paperwork from the Forest Service related to the agency's report into the Las Dispensas planned burn which got out of control in early April amid high winds and low humidity.

That report concluded, "Overall, the planning and analysis for this project were done according to current standards and policy."

Roybal-Mack believes that conclusion should be challenged.

"It's: we did everything wrong, but we do everything wrong all the time," she said.

"I have two goals of this lawsuit," she said. "The first is to create law and legislation that would mean prescribed burns do not continue under these circumstances."

"The second thing is we are talking about generational land, people who live off the land," she added. "So, filing suits for them to be made whole."

Roybal-Mack and her colleagues have been holding meetings with fire victims, who are numerous. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's office estimates that about 900 structures have burned, including homes, and since monsoon rains began, flash floods have burst river banks as rain rushes, unabsorbed, over soil burned hard.

Many displaced people are now living elsewhere in the state. Bernice Naranjo is spending time with her children in Española since her home and land burned. She and her husband had begun renovating the centuries-old adobe in 1971.

"From nothing," she said, "that one little tiny room, that was not even a room, became a beautiful home."

With tears in her eyes, she remembered a beautiful chokecherry tree, making jam with the fruit, seeing her grandchildren playing around it, and then the sight of the tree totally burned when she returned to their land.

"I actually wanted to send and get a bucket of ashes from our house and send it to the Forest Service," she said, "because they are accountable."

This story has been changed to correct a mistake in the attribution of responsibility for the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire and the name of Anita Moss. This reporting was 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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