SANTA FE, NM ( Associated Press) – President Joe Biden said Saturday he is increasing federal aid for New Mexico as it suffers the largest wildfires in record state history.
The fire began with prescribed burns that were determined by the US Forest Service, a standard practice intended to clear combustible underbrush. However, according to federal officials, the burning spiraled out of control by early April, destroying hundreds of homes over 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers).
“We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Biden said during a visit to an emergency operations center in Santa Fe, where he met with local, state and federal officials. He was returning from Los Angeles to Washington, where he had attended the Summit of America.
The president said the federal government would cover the full cost of emergency response and debris removal, a responsibility previously shared with the state government.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham told Biden that “your administration has bowed down from the start” and “we need the federal government to keep accepting responsibility.”
Biden said he also supports Washington’s bill for fire damages, but such a move would require Congressional action.
Evidence of a conflict with the New Mexico wildfires was visible from Air Force One as the presidential plane approached. There were plumes of smoke in the distance, and the rows of burnt trees looked like black spots cutting through the lush forests.
Evacuations have displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage. The fear of flames is causing concern about erosion and soil erosion in places where extremely hot fires have penetrated the soil and roots.
The fires are the latest reminder of Biden’s concern about wildfires, which are expected to worsen as climate change continues, and how they will affect the resources needed to fight them.
“These fires are shining ‘code red’ for our country,” Biden said last year after stopping in Idaho and California. “They’re gaining frequency and speed.”
But the source of the current wildfires in New Mexico has sparked outrage here as well.
A group of Mora County residents sued the US Forest Service last week in an attempt to find out more about the government’s role.
The Forest Service conducts about 4,500 scheduled burns nationwide each year, and Biden said the practice has been put on hold during an investigation.
Ralph Arlens of Las Vegas, New Mexico, said many ranchers of modest means are unlikely to receive compensation for uninsured cabins, barns and sheds that were devastated by the fire.
“They’ve got their day job and their farm and farm life. It’s not like they have a big old house or a hacienda – it may be a very basic house, it may or may not have running water Maybe,” said Erlen, a former wildland firefighter and president of a consortium of Hispanic community advocacy groups. “They use it to be there on weekends to feed and water cattle. Or maybe They may have a camper. But a lot of it got burnt.”
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved at least 900 disaster relief claims for individuals and families worth more than $3 million.
On Thursday, the Biden administration provided eligible financial relief to repair water facilities, irrigation ditches, bridges and roads. US Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, D.N.M. The proposed legislation from the U.S. would offer full compensation for nearly all lost property and income associated with wildfires.
Jennifer Carbajal says she pulled out twice from impending wildfires at a shared family home in Pondri, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain. The house survived, while about 50 neighboring homes burned down with tanks that fed the municipal water system, leaving no local supply of potable water without truck delivery.
“There are no long-term plans for water infrastructure in northern New Mexico right now,” Carbajal said.
She said matters are worse in several hard-to-reach communities in fire-scorched Mora County, where the median household income is about $28,000 — less than half the national average.
“They barter a lot and never really have to depend on external resources,” she said. “The whole idea of applying for a loan (from FEMA) is an immediate turnoff for the majority of that population.”
Jacqueline Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the agency has more than 400 personnel in the state who work with residents and help them get federal aid.
Jorge Fernandez of Las Vegas, New Mexico, says his family is unlikely to be compensated for an uninsured, fire-soaked home in the remote Mineral Hills area, nor a companion cabin that his grandfather had built nearly a century ago. – Made by Grandma.
Fernandez said that her brother had moved from the home to a nursing home before the fire broke out — a direct federal compensation unlikely under current rules because the home was no longer a primary residence.
“I think they should make room for everyone who has lost whatever they have at face value,” Fernandez said. “It would take a lot of money to finish it, but it was something they started and I think they should.”