89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

With billions promised next year, wildfire victims are struggling now

A woman in winter, outdoor clothing walks in a ditch
Alice Fordham
Paula Garcia of the New Mexico Acequia Association shows KUNM the Acequia Madre de Holman, which is usually four feet deep and has been filled with soil and ash washing down from the burn scar

In the brilliant sunshine and freezing cold of the Mora Valley, Paula Garcia gestures up to the blackened mountainside above the village of Holman.

"You can see the burn scar above the village," she says, pointing at large patches of forest scorched by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire earlier this year. "And all of that soil that used to be held by the trees and bushes and plants, that soil washed down along with ash."

Garcia is the head of the New Mexico Acequia Association, advocating for preservation and maintenance of the network of irrigation channels built by Spanish settlers centuries ago. Now, she points out the acequia that usually feeds farms along this valley, full of soil that washed down in the heavy monsoon rains.

"Normally this would be about four feet deep," she says. "And now it's almost completely silted in."

This is not the first time she has shown someone around the damaged irrigation network, and explained the importance of it to livelihoods and culture in the fire region. She has led close to 20 tours for people from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"They're definitely interested, they're willing to help but they have a lot of bureaucratic red tape to work through." She laughs. "Things are making very slow progress with FEMA."

The fire began in April and burned nearly 350,000 acres. It ravaged Mora County, where small ranchers and loggers have lived for many generations, and the subsequent flooding threatened the municipal water supply of the nearby city of Las Vegas. It destroyed approximately 640 homes.

Because the fire was started by a federal agency, when two planned burns by the US National Forest Service got out of control, the federal government has taken full responsibility and passed legislation in September, the Hermit's Peak Fire Assistance Act, designed to compensate everyone affected for all losses.

An initial $2.5 billion was allocated to the compensation program. A further $1.45 billion is included in a draft omnibus spending bill which Congress is now racing to pass before the holidays.

Those sums could revitalize an impoverished region.

However, the agency tasked with executing the legislation is FEMA, and many here are frustrated with the agency based on its initial response to the fire.

During the spring and summer, FEMA invited people to submit claims for anything not covered by insurance. In the low-income area worst affected by the fire, many people lacked insurance, and saw the process as a potential lifeline. But so far fewer than a third of those who applied have received money, and the agency acknowledges that many applicants went through an arduous series of applications and rejections.

"It's almost designed to wear you down," said Joseph Griego, who directs the Mora Head Start Program and tried to help people with their applications for help. "Five times through FEMA for a denial. And now FEMA is in charge of $2.5 billion to determine if you get it or not."

FEMA published a draft set of regulations for the claims process in November and is now taking public comment on them, including online and in a series of public meetings.

One person who raised concerns was New Mexico's Attorney-General Hector Balderas. He wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who oversees FEMA, to say that families do not have the resources to hire experts to quantify what they've lost and that a cap on 25% of the value of trees on a property should be lifted.

Angela Gladwell, the director of the claims office, said they are working on it

"Our intention is to make sure that we are finding ways to fully compensate for the value of those trees," she told KUNM.

The final regulations should be published in the new year, and Gladwell says people should be able to start filing claims around February. She does see the gap between the huge sums promised and people's suffering, and said that the agency's programming has a way to go in addressing this kind of disaster.

"We're seeing that total devastation of a way of life and communities and people that have lost everything," she said. "Many of our programs were put in place 20 or more years ago, and were not designed for these types of needs."

Meantime in Mora, which sits more than a mile above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the weather is extremely cold.

Doreen Sandoval, who works at Mora's middle school, and her husband, who was a farm laborer whose work has been affected by the irrigation problems, had a permit to gather firewood in a part of forest that is now burned.

"We're struggling right now," she said. "And there's a lot of people that are struggling with that purpose of keeping their house heated up for the winter."

She and her husband are eking out the firewood they have.

"It's a bit colder," she said. "Because we're trying to just preserve our wood so we can make it through the winter."

So far, FEMA's initial response helped her with some money to patch up the road to her mobile home, which was damaged by floods, although not enough to repair flood damage to the structure itself. Next year, she hopes to file a claim under the new legislation for full repairs and compensation for loss of access to firewood.

Many residents say they are bracing for a lot more paperwork.

"This fire thing's a full-time job," said Suzanne DeVos-Cole, who lost her home in the fire and said in addition to that stress and sadness has come months of navigating insurance and federal agencies.

"And it caused so much stress in our household," she said. "I had more fights with my husband in the last six months than in the last 30 years. So that's tough. And now this Act is the same thing. It's going to be a full-time job."

She is now living in a casita on the land where her main home burned. There are good days and bad days.

"There are nights when we sit there and everything feels cozy, and you feel a little bit healthier," she said. "And then there are times you're looking at the landscape and it's just basically a bunch of toothpicks, black toothpicks."

This story has been updated

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.
Related Content