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Amid hope and skepticism, details emerge on how fire relief billions will be spent

 Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández led a community meeting in Mora to explain the Hermit's Peak Fire Assistance Act
Alice Fordham
Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández led a community meeting in Mora to explain the Hermit's Peak Fire Assistance Act

Victims of the the state's largest-ever wildfire are beginning to learn more about how $2.5 billion allocated to them by Congress will be spent.

The federal government took responsibility for the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire, which began as two planned burns by the Forest Service, and destroyed an estimated 640 homes as well as the livelihoods of many people who worked in forestry and agriculture.

On Monday, in the hard-hit town of Mora, about 200 people crammed into a community meeting at a high school to hear from Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández and a team from FEMA about how much help they might get, and when.

Everyone had been touched by the fire. Some had lost homes in the blaze, others were dealing with daily flooding and mold. People shared stories of lost forest used for firewood, of destroyed fencing, of waterways badly damaged.

"There was nobody in Congress who I didn't pull aside and tell them what had happened here," said Rep. Leger Fernández. "It was your grief, it was your hardship that I took and I shared with them."

Along with Sen. Ben Ray Luján, she first introduced legislation in May to try to win compensation for the victims of the fire. The law was ultimately included in an interim spending bill signed by President Joe Biden at the end of September.

She explained to the meeting that the new law would provide for people to apply over a two-year period for compensation for any losses sustained as a result of the fire or subsequent flooding. Case managers will help people assemble their application, or if people choose to hire an attorney, the law caps the percentage of any settlement a lawyer can take at 20%.

The law is modeled on the process by which victims were compensated after the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, when a planned burn got out of control and burned homes in Los Alamos.

FEMA managed the process then, and a government report from 2003 showed most claims had been dealt with by then. But in Mora county, with its particular rural character, claims could be more complicated as people attempt to calculate what they lose when, for instance, a forest used for firewood or lumber takes 30 years to regrow.

Many people complain about FEMA's initial response, saying they have been mired in paperwork and seen little help. Residents and FEMA officials say that one limiting factor is that people in this rural area sometimes do not have conventional documents, like deeds to a house that has been in a family for generations.

Gerard Stolar, a Federal Coordinating Officer with FEMA, addressed the meeting, acknowledging the palpable anger in the muttering audience.

"All of you are very frustrated," he said.

Under the existing emergency response, $5.7 million has been approved for distribution to 1,320 applicants. Stolar said over 4,000 households have applied for help. Of those, he said only 20 qualified for housing assistance, because anyone who had found alternative accommodation (such as staying with a relative) was excluded from housing aid.

When asked why FEMA had not provided trailers for displaced people, he said the geographical conditions of northern New Mexico made the use of trailers difficult.

"I would just ask you to be patient and continue to be persistent because some significant help is on the way," he told the meeting.

Local lawyer Antonia Roybal-Mack attended the meeting with her parents.

"I think there's a lot of limitations within FEMA," she said. "When you're saying, 'Trust me to do the right thing even though I have not done the right thing till this point', it is a really difficult pill to swallow."

Roybal-Mack wants the agency to hire locals who understand issues like loss of firewood, hunting permits or wells, and who speak Spanish, like many people in the affected area.

FEMA has until mid-November to write draft regulations. Then there will be a public comment period, set to be 60 days long, after which people should be able to begin applying for the funding.

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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