4 Investigates: Burned by FEMA
In less than three months, it will be two years since the U.S. Forest Service started the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
It’s also been a year since the federal government set aside billions for victims of the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
Still, for many victims of the federal fire, FEMA is not holding up its end of the deal — the agency has passed out just 8% of that bucket of money.
It’s almost like life is on hold. That’s how Toby Dolan describes the two years since the fire destroyed his Rociada property.
His burned family compound is cleaned up and cleared out, but they still don’t have the money to start over.
“It’s tough,” Dolan said. “My mother and grandmother are getting older every day and it’s tough on them. It’s really hard on them waiting to see where life is going to take them next.”
The end to that wondering and waiting is somewhere in the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office.
“You had the president come to New Mexico, stand with the victims and say, ‘Look, we caused this. We the Forest Service, we’re going to make it right.’ I want to commend President Biden. That’s something that rarely happens,” said Gerald Singleton, Managing Partner of Singleton & Schreiber.
In 2022, Congress directed FEMA to dole out nearly $4 billion in relief to fire victims like Dolan.
“It was something to hang your hat on,” he said. “The belief that we didn’t actually have to sue the government to potentially make ourselves whole.”
Dolan hasn’t seen a dime.
Attorney Gerald Singleton represents Dolan and more than a thousand other Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire victims.
“This bill was an opportunity and was intended by its drafters, by the president, to really do something remarkable and instead all of that great possibility has been destroyed by FEMA’s incompetence,” Singleton said.
They’re taking FEMA to federal court over several issues he blames on incompetence. Perhaps, most importantly, he said FEMA is failing to meet the 180-day timeline to determine payout amounts included in the relief bill.
“When you stand up a brand-new federal program that Congress has directed FEMA to create it does take some time,” said John Mills, a spokesperson for the FEMA claims office.
Mills said the agency has worked hard to get the relief program up and running. They’ve been setting up claims offices and hiring people to do the work.
He said they’ve distributed more than $300 million so far. The goal is to get $1 billion out the door by the end of the year.
Still, that is just a quarter of what Congress ordered the agency to pay to fire victims. By then, it’ll also be almost three years since the fire.
While Mills said FEMA anticipates spending more than $1 billion on reforestation claims, Singleton points out they only recently hired arborists to do the work.
“We are working to speed up the process and prioritize people who have submitted claims some time ago,” Mills said.
He said they’re still staffing up. Nearly two years after the disaster, Singleton said that just adds to the frustration.
“It’s one of those things where there’s no transparency, there’s no accountability and there’s been no performance,” Singleton said.
Dolan said the 180-day clock on his claim decision expired last month. He was forced to give the agency an extension.
Once again, making the dream of having his own home and getting back to where he was, seem even further out of reach.
“It was all well and good that they got the money appropriated for this. But, step up and force this office right here to do something about it,” Dolan said.
KOB 4 reached out to our congressional delegation but they were not available for an interview. However, U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández issued this joint statement:
“Passing the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act into law was a critical first step in making sure those impacted by the worst wildfire in our state’s history see justice. After the U.S. Forest Service caused the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to do right by New Mexicans and deliver relief to those impacted as soon as possible. The reported delays in compensating victims of the fire are frustrating and unacceptable. We continue to urge FEMA, the Biden administration, and New Mexico state leadership to help New Mexicans cut through the red tape and receive the assistance that they need and deserve. The Claims Office must work quickly and efficiently to get relief out the door and implement our legislation.”