Fire victims face long waits for compensation, consider legal action – KUNM | Candle Made Easy

On a recent morning in the town of Mora, rancher Peter Velazquez was calling about 20 cows and calves in a field right next to his well-kept home, whose front porch was full of flowers.

He shook fodder out of a sack while the cattle followed, snorting and mooing. From here in the valley he can see the high point on the mountainside where the cows would normally be at this time of year.

He pointed to 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 down in the valley.

This year these mountains are covered in burn marks from the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak fire, the largest in the state, and the US Forest Service has banned grazing. There are probably still edible plants, Velazquez said, but “there are no fences for us. They’re all burned.”

Now he gives the cattle hay and fodder every day and has no place to grow alfalfa for the winter. His costs go up.

“That fire really set us back and it certainly changed our lives,” he said.

And so far, Velazquez said he’s received little help. He is not eligible for the disaster relief that FEMA provided to victims of the fire because his home was unaffected. He said the New Mexico Livestock Board gave him 12 bales of hay that didn’t last long.

As he stood in the field looking at burn scars, he reiterated the local consensus as to when two planned burns performed by the US Forest Service combined to become a giant wildfire, “did really attract a lot of permites and a lot of small ranchers.”

As President Joe Biden visited the state last monthhe promised more support.

“We have a responsibility to help the state recover, to help the families that have been here for centuries,” he said.

But whether the administration will compensate people like Velazquez for all his losses is a question tied to legislation slowly moving through Congress and local plans for legal action.

So far, federal aid has focused on measures such as firefighting, debris removal and reseeding. As Biden pointed out during his visit, full compensation for victims would require the passage of legislation similar to that passed after the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, which began as a planned conflagration and affected about 280 homes and parts of the lot Alamos National Laboratory destroyed .

At the time, the initial budget allocation for compensation was $455 million. For comparison, on July 11 of this year, FEMA reported granting less than $4 million to 1,117 fire victims.

Anita Ross sits in front of the burnt remains of her former home outside the town of Mora

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

“I had a lot of supplies, but they were all categorized,” she said, glancing at her former home. “Well, if I want to teach a papermaking course, bam, I’ve got my stuff. And I’m just going to have to reevaluate it all.”

The New Mexico congressional delegation has been working to include fire safety legislation as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual law that grants hundreds of billions of dollars in funding. US 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 Senator Ben Ray Luján sponsored it, and even if successful, it likely won’t be signed by the President before the end of the year.

Even if the law is passed, even though funding would be released, timing could still be an issue. After the Cerro Grande fire, FEMA oversaw the rebuilding of many homes, but two years later, some people still lived in caravans. A government report from 2003 documented continuing unpaid claims.

And in the three northeastern New Mexico counties hardest hit by the fires — Mora, San Miguel and Taos — many fire victims don’t have the funds to weather the tough times.

“I think there’s a lot of us that probably need to sell,” said Velazquez, the rancher. “I myself may have to get rid of half [my herd].”

Some people are considering legal action if the law doesn’t pass. Antonia Roybal-Mack, an Albuquerque attorney, grew up in Mora and several family members lost land to the fire. She is preparing a mass compensation process against the forest service.

She has begun requesting paperwork from the Forest Service related to the agency’s report on the planned Las Dispensas fire, which spiraled out of control in early April amid high winds and low humidity.

That report concluded: “Overall, the planning and analysis for this project was performed in accordance with current standards and guidelines.”

Roybal-Mack believes this conclusion should be challenged.

“It’s: We’ve done everything wrong, but we do everything wrong all the time,” she said.

“I have two goals with this lawsuit,” she said. “The first is to create laws and regulations that would mean prescribed burns would not go ahead in these circumstances.”

“Second, we’re talking about generational land, people living off the land,” she added. “So, file lawsuits so they can get well.”

Roybal-Mack and her colleagues have held meetings with numerous fire victims. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office estimates about 900 buildings burned, including homes, and flash flooding has inundated riverbanks since the beginning of the monsoon rains as rain poured unabsorbed over the hard-burned ground.

Many displaced people now live elsewhere in the state. Bernice Naranjo has been spending time with her children in Española since her home and land burned down. She and her husband began renovating the centuries-old adobe in 1971.

“From nothing,” she said, “this tiny room that wasn’t even a room became a beautiful home.”

With tears in her eyes, she remembered a beautiful apple cherry tree, made jam from the fruit, watched her grandchildren play around and then the sight of the tree stung when she returned to her land.

“Actually, I was going to send and get a bucket of ash from our house and send it to the Forest Service,” she said, “because they’re responsible.”

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