FEMA begins paying victims of Forest Service fires

The federal government is preparing to pay victims of a massive wildfire sparked when the Forest Service lost control of a mandated fire in New Mexico earlier this year.

The move to process their claims signals a remarkable concession by federal officials after a devastating fire that tore through a forested area largely occupied by low-income descendants of Spanish settlers. Congress took the rare step of allocating $2.5 billion to a compensation fund to pay for injuries, property damage, lost income and lost business caused by the wildfire.

The fund will also cover the cost of psychological counseling for people affected by the fire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which distributes the money, gave people two years to make claims and recently issued a notice explaining how claims should be made.

It is only the second time that Congress has voted to compensate victims of a wildfire caused by a federal agency.

The fire burned 342,000 acres — an area almost twice the size of New York City — and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings and is the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. It began in April when rapidly changing weather conditions caused a Forest Service-mandated state fire to spread beyond its borders in northeastern New Mexico.

The fire merged with another wildfire, and the conflagration became known as the Hermit’s Peak / Calf Canyon Fire. It took firefighters four and a half months to put out the blazes, forcing massive evacuations from two low-income counties with mostly Hispanic populations.

A June Forest Service report revealed a litany of agency mistakes, saying climate change is making mandated fires more dangerous, although controlled burns remain essential to clear forests and prevent wildfire disasters (climate wire23rd June).

The establishment of the Settlement Fund was a huge last-minute victory for the New Mexico congressional delegation. Lawmakers pushed to include the fund in a short-term spending bill that Congress approved on Sept. 30 to keep the federal government running through Dec. 16.

Days before Congress added the fund to the current resolution, when the fund’s status was uncertain, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (DN.M.) “was adamant.”

Leger Fernández, who represents the district where the wildfire occurred, said at the time: “There isn’t a single chairman of a committee in the House of Representatives who hasn’t heard what happened in New Mexico.”

After Congress approved the compensation fund, Leger Fernández said it was “the beginning of the healing process” (Greenwire, Oct. 3).

In 2000, Congress approved a compensation fund after the Cerro Grande fire that burned 48,000 acres in northern New Mexico, destroying more than 200 homes and forcing 18,000 people to evacuate. The fire started as a controlled burn by the National Park Service, who claimed responsibility for the wildfire.

The Cerro Grande fund paid $588 million in claims.

Congress also created the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to pay people for losses from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Individuals accepting payments from the new compensation fund will waive their right to seek compensation from the government through other avenues, such as federal courts.

The fund is separate from the disaster relief provided by FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the wildfire and soft-disaster loans provided by the Small Business Administration.

The wildfire burned down a portion of northern New Mexico that has a long and checkered history with the US government and the Forest Service, or “La Floresta” in particular.

Many locals trace their heritage to Spanish settlers, who arrived long before the U.S. acquired the area through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. But as the US largely ignored its treaty obligations, locals saw their rights and their lands stolen by profiteers and the federal government.

The Forest Service now manages much of the area, deciding when and how “nuevomexicanos,” as locals call themselves, can use the land they still consider their property.

Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.