New Mexico seeks changes to US rules for wildfire claims

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is asking that changes be made to rules proposed by the U.S. government as it processes damage claims from a historic wildfire sparked by forest managers.

Balderas filed comments on the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire assistance regulations this week, outlining concerns over limitations on damages, the lack of a clear appeals process and leadership of the team that will oversee the claims process.

Numerous missteps by the U.S. Forest Service resulted in prescribed fires erupting this spring into the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history. The blaze forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from villages throughout the Sangre de Cristo mountain range as it burned through more than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

The fire forced the Forest Service to review its prescribed fire policies before resuming operations in the fall, and experts have said the environmental consequences will span generations.

Balderas, who is term-limited and will be leaving office at the end of the year, is requesting the Federal Emergency Management Agency appoint an independent claims manager who has experience practicing law in New Mexico to oversee the review of claims.

Claims for damages will be assessed under state law, and a background in New Mexico law will be imperative to properly assessing and compensating residents, he said.

“We’re taking action today to begin recovery from a tragic wildfire that never should have occurred, and we are fighting for the federal government to acknowledge the gaps in the FEMA process that have historically ignored the unique needs of communities,” Balderas said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Many residents were either uninsured or underinsured and have complained that FEMA workers don’t understand northern New Mexico. They have described the claims process as overwhelming.

A final public meeting to comment on the proposed FEMA regulations will be Jan. 5 in Mora.

Top state officials have said the regulations need to account for the uniqueness of the region — a mountainous rural expanse where culture and tradition are intertwined with the landscape.

The fire resulted in what the attorney general’s office called significant tree and erosion losses. Balderas said New Mexico law has previously allowed for recovery of the full value of any trees destroyed on a person’s property and this should be no exception.

Congress has approved nearly $4 billion in assistance for the wildfire victims, including $1.45 billion that was part of the massive spending bill passed last week.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, whose district includes the fire-ravaged region, said the latest funding marks another step in the right direction while acknowledging that recovery will be challenging.

“This additional funding is what justice looks like — the federal government is taking responsibility for the harm it caused and answering the stories, voices, and calls for help to rebuild,” she said in a statement. “My promise has always been to pursue every possible opportunity to seek justice.”

The latest federal measure also includes separate streams of funding for forest restoration and watershed protection work.

The New Mexico attorney general’s office also has filed a notice of loss that seeks compensation for billions of dollars in damages suffered by local and state government agencies as a result of the wildfire.