Aug. 29—SANTA FE — Federal emergency managers say they have paid out $37 million to compensate victims of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire and expect to reach $1 billion by the beginning of 2025.
They also announced on Monday the final regulations governing compensation to fire victims, with changes they said address public concerns.
The final rule, for example, calls for fully compensating New Mexico families for trees and vegetation wiped out in the fire, not limiting the payouts to 25% of what was lost, as initially proposed.
“We have listened, we’ve addressed feedback, we’ve evolved,” claims office director Angela Gladwell said in a news conference Monday.
But private attorneys say the changes in the final rule don’t go far enough and that the pace of payouts is too slow.
Gerald Singleton, an attorney who represents families recovering from the fire, said the claims office is still refusing to pay noneconomic damages under the final regulation. Those damages can include compensation for pain, suffering and similar losses.
“The failure to provide noneconomic damages to victims is cruel and violates the law,” Singleton told the Journal.
The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office contends it isn’t allowed to pay for noneconomic damages. But the office is expanding compensation for mental health treatment, federal officials said.
Antonia Roybal-Mack, an attorney who grew up in Mora and has sued the U.S. Forest Service in connection with the fire, said the final rule includes some real “wins” that will help New Mexicans, including elimination of the 25% cap on reforestation claims.
But the overall pace of payouts “is much too slow,” she said Monday. “We need to continue to remind FEMA that this is not a distribution or a gift, but instead compensation for the federal government taking away people’s livelihoods, homes, heritage and lands of cultural significance. Congress asked them to move quickly, and now is the time for that.”
Singleton said the $1 billion target by 2025 is “disturbing,” given that $3.95 billion was authorized by federal legislation to help New Mexicans. He suggested the federal government appoint a manager, such as an experienced attorney or judge, to evaluate claims more quickly.
“It should not take almost three years,” he said, “to distribute only 25% of those funds.”
Gladwell, the claims office director, said her agency is processing claims as quickly as it can.
“From the very beginning of developing this program, we said we expect this process to take about five to six years,” she said.
The office, Gladwell said, is also trying new strategies to better help New Mexicans, such as the use of claims “navigators” who can get to know the fire victims’ needs and guide them through the process.
It’s intended, she said, to ensure people get the help for which they qualify.
“I see it paying off in what the claimants are telling us about their experiences as they go through the process,” Gladwell said of the strategy.
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire began as two prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service that grew out of control, scorching 534 square-miles of wilderness and private property, largely in San Miguel and Mora counties.
It destroyed 900 structures, including hundreds of homes, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.
In written statements Monday, state and federal officials said the final regulations are an important step forward.
“The federal government started these fires, and now it has a moral obligation to help New Mexicans who were impacted,” U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said the federal government “must focus on getting these resources out as quickly as possible to the New Mexicans affected by the fire with an eye on cutting through red tape and making this process as easy as possible for those seeking funding.”
(c)2023 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.