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Claims office for fire victims begins work, gradually

Fire-burned home Mora County Calf Canyon Hermits Peak
Megan Gleason
Source NM
Remnants of a house that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned up are surrounded by dead trees in Mora County. Pictured on Sept. 12, 2022.

Six months after Congress passed legislation promising compensation to victims of the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire, a claims office administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has hired local workers, set up a Facebook page and hotline, and begun calling about 400 people who filed initial paperwork notifying the agency of their loss.

But in signs that the claims process is rolling out gradually despite initial hopes it would be underway by February, there is no date for the office to release final rules for the claims and physical offices are not due to open until some time next month.

The office's director, FEMA's Angela Gladwell, told KUNM important steps had been taken to start the process, and said that straightforward and urgent claims would be dealt with before the rules were finalized.

She said no one awarded compensation before final rules were published would be penalized if rules relevant to their claim changed in the final version.

The office has begun hiring, drawing some of its staff from the local community. Officials and advocates have long said it is vital people handling claims understand the land, culture and economy in Mora and San Miguel Counties, the areas worst affected.

"We onboarded 19 new local hires," Gladwell said. "And we have another 6 to 12 who will be joining us in mid-April."

They will support field offices and work as claims navigators, a role designed to give each claimant a guide to a process which is likely to be complex, as the dollar value is calculated of damage to agricultural and forested land, as well as irrigation, livestock and property.

The deputy director of the office, Jennifer Carbajal, lives in Las Vegas. According to a biography on the FEMA website, her wife's family go back many generations in northern New Mexico.

Claims reviewers and navigators are now beginning to contact claimants who have submitted an initial piece of paperwork called a "notice of loss" form, which fire victims were invited to fill out to express an interest in beginning the claims process.

Interim process

Many more than 400 people are likely entitled to compensation (about 640 homes were destroyed, according to the governor's office) after the federal government took responsibility for a blaze that began as Forest Service prescribed burns, but Gladwell said many people were waiting for the publication of a finalized set of rules for claims before beginning the process.

She said people should not wait. An interim set of rules was published last year, and hundreds of public comments were submitted. Gladwell said she does not know when the final version will be done.

"Regulations are a time-consuming process. We had no idea…how many comments we would receive," she said.

She said people raised questions about a 25% cap on the value of trees, and the same cap on damage mitigation measures, for instance to limit flooding. Another issue is a time limit on flood insurance, when people are expecting flooding on burn scars for years to come.

While the final rules are adjudicated, Gladwell said the office will deal with the easiest and most urgent claims including evacuation and debris removal expenses, and short-term flood insurance.

Last year, she said she hoped that people would be able to file claims by February.

"I would not ever characterize this as a delay. I've just characterized the fact that I'm being extremely aggressive. And I missed that mark by a couple of weeks," Gladwell said.

Legal concerns

Some people are concerned about the delay in finalized rules.

"They're hoping that people will join the claims process without a final rule in place, which is kind of a really tough thing to ask," said Antonia Roybal-Mack, a lawyer whose family is from Mora. She said hundreds of households have engaged her to navigate the claims process for them.

"Really, how do people trust a process that's not published?" she said.

Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna said she thought the process should start so that people can at least get this year's flood insurance in place.

"The monsoon season is just around the corner," she said, but added she hopes that rules are finalized soon so that the process can be clearer.

"It's going to be confusing for a lot of these people, especially the elderly people," she said.

Meantime, people are waiting anxiously to see what this year will bring in terms of fire and floods. Serna said a snowy, wet winter could be a blessing, because wetter vegetation should mean less fire risk. But it could be a curse; snowmelt on burn scars can be devastating.

"People got a little comfortable during the winter," she said. "But I think that the anxiety level is rising again, with all the snow melts, and the winds.

"And you can definitely see the effects of PTSD amongst everyone from from the children to the parents and the elderly. Everyone's stressing out all over again."

The claims office hotline is 505-995-7133, it is staffed from 10am to 6pm Monday to Thursday.

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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