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

Attorneys for fire victims are suing the government after long waits for FEMA aid

The deadline for individuals to apply for FEMA assistance following the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire is Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Bright Quashie
Source NM
FEMA is administering a claims program for victims of the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire

This week, two New Mexico law firms announced they were suing the federal government on behalf of more than 2,000 people and public entities affected by the catastrophic Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak wildfire in 2022.

This comes despite the fact that the federal government took responsibility for the burn, because it began as prescribed fires by the U.S. Forest Service. The communities affected say a  compensation program managed by FEMA has been slow and bureaucratic.

FEMA officials have apologized for delays, and pointed out that about $470 million have now been distributed in claims. They have recently expanded an office in Mora County. FEMA says some people have made claims for things the agency can’t pay for, like attorney fees, but that the agency has processed about 2,500 claims, about two-thirds of all they’ve received.

One of the attorneys for the victims is Brian Colón of Singleton Schreiber law firm, and the former State Auditor. He spoke to KUNM about why he sees the case as necessary despite compensation legislation passed by Congress.

BRIAN COLÓN: Unfortunately, 18 months later, we find ourselves in a position where we have to protect our clients' claims. And at this point, we have no assurances that these claims are going to get resolved under the fire fund act. And so that requires us to protect our clients' claims by filing what's commonly referred to as an SF-95, which is us putting the federal government on notice that we are bringing suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act. You have a limitation in terms of when you can bring those claims. And one has to put the federal government on notice within two years of the wrongful act by the federal government. And so we found ourselves on that two-year mark.

KUNM: Do you want to characterize a bit what the different circumstances of the victims are? 

COLÓN: Well, I think you have to start from the beginning. And that is really the collective consciousness of a community that has enjoyed one another's company, the environment, the natural surrounding that is northern New Mexico. Many of those homes, and those families have literally hundreds of years of history in New Mexico, and in a moment's notice, in a single act of negligence, that was all stripped away in an instant. Now, as you get down and drill into the individual claims, they range everywhere from people who were renting residences in northern New Mexico, that had to evacuate, to people who've had their family homes, like I said, for generations, who had to leave as those homes were being destroyed by fire.

All of those victims were promised by the federal government, by the President of the United States, that they were seen, that their pain was felt, and that they'd be fully compensated under the law. And that means not just rebuilding homes, but that means for damages that are related to trespass and nuisance, and what they lost.

KUNM: Do you think the case is likely to proceed, or is the hope that this will spur FEMA to act faster?

COLÓN: We have said from very early on the system that they were establishing was not going to work. I attended an event that was hosted by the Coalition for Fire Fund Fairness, and there was a representative from FEMA that essentially said, 'Look, we're sorry, we thought we knew what we're doing. But we made a mistake. This was not what we expected. The plan that we had, wasn't going to work and it didn't work'. And our message back to FEMA is: that's great that you've apologized. But now you've re-traumatized northern New Mexico collectively and individually. So for us, if you ask me, sure, we're going to keep on pushing. And we hope that FEMA stands up a system that works, but I'm not convinced yet.

KUNM: The FEMA official at that event, Colt Hagmeier, mentioned that the legislation to compensate these fire victims was based on a similar law after the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos more than 20 years ago, right? What have the flaws been with that?

COLÓN: The federal government said We blew it. We stood up a system that was going to match Cerro Grande, and we were completely wrong. But that just means they weren't paying attention. Northern New Mexico is nothing like Los Alamos. You have two different communities. You have two sets of heritage, you have just individuals, properties, and environment that are 180 degrees different from one another. So how in the world could FEMA have been so absent to believe that the system that they set up in one place was going to serve a place that is like no other, a place that has 400 years of history, a place that has families that have handed down their property and their home stakes for generation after generation?

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