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During NM visit, Pelosi hints aid to fire victims will come sooner than expected 


During NM visit, Pelosi hints aid to fire victims will come sooner than expected 

Sep 27, 2022 | 7:05 am ET
By Patrick Lohmann
During NM visit, Pelosi hints aid to fire victims will come sooner than expected 
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (left), U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mayor Louie Trujillo of Las Vegas, N.M. listen to personal stories during a round table about recovering from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire held in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

Those who suffered damage or injury due to the biggest fire in state history could be in line to receive substantial compensation sooner than expected, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a visit to Albuquerque on Monday.  

The Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-Las Vegas, N.M.), requires the federal government to pay damages for the 500-square-mile wildfire a U.S. Forest Service crew accidentally caused in April. The fire north of Las Vegas destroyed about 1,000 structures, including more than 500 homes, charred the landscape, imperiled the watershed and forced thousands to flee.

Pelosi came to Albuquerque on Monday to hear from victims of the fire and elected officials from the area. She also touted the possibility of including the act in Congress’ continuing resolution. That’s the spending deal that keeps the government funded and other priorities, so long as lawmakers agree to it before Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year. 

Speaking to reporters after the roundtable, she hinted that the legislation would be part of the spending bill but would not say how much money it would contain.

“Stay tuned,” she said at the news conference at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Putting the legislation in the budget deal means the aid could arrive earlier than anticipated, though it remains to be seen how quickly victims will be able to file claims under the act and then receive compensation. 

In July, the legislation was slated to be part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which may not be passed until February 2023, according to a recent report by a defense industry trade publication.

Meanwhile, thousands are still recovering from the massive fire and the complications it caused. Destructive floods coursed through the burn scar during the monsoon season, adding further damage to landscape and communities, and threatening Las Vegas’ water supply. Many people suffered losses, including farmers and ranchers, who are still displaced while trying to navigate an alphabet soup of federal relief programs, often with limited success.

FEMA, for example, issued denials to about 30% of individual applicants so far, according to the last figures from July. (FEMA has declined repeated requests from Source New Mexico in recent months for updated denial numbers). 

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The legislation that is included in the spending bill would go much further than other programs. It’s an effort to pay back lost revenue, fully rebuild homes or structures lost and restore the environment. 

“This is an extraordinary assault on the environment that is the clear responsibility of the government,” Pelosi told members of the roundtable. “When something happens like a natural disaster, there is a compact between the people and the government that we will be there. But we have to be there in a timely fashion, in a way that facilitates benefits coming forward.”

During NM visit, Pelosi hints aid to fire victims will come sooner than expected 
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández stand in front of community members and elected officials affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire who just attended a round table with the Speaker and Representative at the Indian Pueblo Community Center on Monday. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

What the bill would do

However much Congress allocates would be divided among claimants and administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It would establish a designated FEMA office to pay out claims. That’s a similar structure to the last time the federal government accidentally let a prescribed burn escape in New Mexico. In 2000, the National Park Service ignited the Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos. 

The bill would allow those with fire or flood losses to file an application within two years, and then the government will have up to six months afterward to determine if a claim is valid. The total will be reduced by any insurance payments an applicant would have received up to that point. 

Individual applicants can file claims for loss of property, a decrease in property value, damage to infrastructure “including irrigation infrastructure such as acequia systems” and any costs that result from lost subsistence through hunting, fishing, gathering firewood, timber, grazing or agriculture. 

After passing US House, Hermits Peak Fire aid act won’t hit the Senate for weeks 

Businesses can also seek damages under the act, including for damage to inventory, business interruptions, lost wages and more. 

As written, the legislation would also cover new flood insurance payments, flood or fire mitigation, debris removal, increased mortgage interest or loans provided by the Small Business Administration. 

There is no cap on the amount a person or business can receive, unlike the individual FEMA payouts so far, which are capped at $40,000. 


‘Every disaster has its own personality’

Pelosi and Leger Fernandez spoke to various elected officials and local forestry experts during the roundtable, which reporters could not attend most of. Attendees described the toll of the past five months and shortfalls in the federal response.

“FEMA is scary,” San Miguel County Chair Harold Garcia said during the end of the discussion. “I’m thinking that the guidelines FEMA has, that maybe they need to change those guidelines.”

Pelosi later said she understood concerns about FEMA. 

“I hear what you’re saying about FEMA,” she said. “Every disaster has its own personality. And so we have to make sure that they understand that.”

Pelosi and Leger Fernandez both struck a hopeful tone in describing the region’s future, saying that recovery could take years but that, eventually, water will again be safe to drink again, and the forest renewed. 

“We hope to bring healing and payment for the loss of income in homes and business,” Leger Fernandez said. “…That is important not just in terms of looking at it as rebuilding a home or rebuilding a barn, but it is also rebuilding a future for these children.”