Biden pledges feds will cover wildfire costs in NM visit
At a press conference last Saturday (June 11) at the New Mexico Emergency Operations Center, President Joe Biden told Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that the federal government will cover the full cost of the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak Fire wildfire response efforts in Northern New Mexico.
“Governor, let me be clear, we will be here for you for response and recovery for as long as it takes,” said Biden.
Biden also acknowledged the role the U.S. Forest Service played in starting the massive fire that began in early April that is now at over 335,000 acres and still continues to burn within the 70% containment area.
“This is now the largest fire in our long history, and while wildfires have occurred since time immemorial, this one was not caused naturally,” said Lujan Grisham. “This is why we need the federal government to keep accepting responsibility.”
Prior to the press conference his Biden flew around the perimeter of the fire in Air Force One to inspect the damage, which he said spanned an “astounding” amount of territory with “thousands of people displaced, ranchers wiped out, schools shuttered and wilderness that looks like a ‘moonscape.’”
“We have a responsibility to help this state recover, to help the families who have been here for centuries and the beautiful northern New Mexico villages,” said Biden.
Forest Service investigators determined last month that both the Calf Canyon Fire and the Hermit’s Peak Fires that joined together in Northern New Mexico were caused by prescribed burns.
Biden said while 99.8% of prescribed burns go as planned this time it did not, which is why the Forest Service has put a pause on prescribed burns to conduct a 90-day review of its policies and procedures.
‘Went up in smoke’
Lujan Grisham said 1,200 homes were burned, hundreds of thousands of farms and grazing land were destroyed and many family businesses were lost due to the relentless Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak fire.
“It’s about the blood and sweat of generations of New Mexicans who work the land, who fed their families and raised their children – all of that just went up in smoke,” she said.
About 2,500 firefighters have been fighting the fire amidst record breaking heat and high wind and thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes and moved to shelters and hotels across the area over the past two months.
Lujan Grisham told Biden that despite the “pain, devastation and heartbreak” many residents who lost homes in the fire are determined to rebuild.
“We are strong and resilient and we know we are faced with disasters unlike anything we’ve seen in generations past,” she said.
Lujan Grisham said communities impacted by the fire will need help with debris removal, watershed protection for streams and acequias, which are the “lifeblood” of the region.
“We will rebuild our homes, our communities and restore our land, because that’s what we do,” said Lujan Grisham. “It’s the duty of the federal government and the state to do right by the people of New Mexico.”
On May 4, Biden approved a major disaster declaration for counties impacted by the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak fire, which immediately deployed about 400 FEMA personnel to New Mexico.
On Saturday, Biden announced the federal government will also waive the state’s 25% share of the emergency response costs that normally come with a major disaster declaration.
“When you asked for a major disaster declaration, I immediately responded, providing millions of dollars in housing assistance, cash grants, and funding for emergency responders,” he said. “I feel we have a responsibility to the communities who were put in such jeopardy.”
Biden said all of the immediate federal wildfire response and recovery efforts will provide a strong bridge until the congressional “Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act” is passed that would require FEMA to administer a program to compensate those who suffered personal or financial losses resulting from the fire.
In the meantime, Biden said the most important thing families impacted and displaced by the fire can do is register for assistance with FEMA.
Eligible residents can sign up for a state program that allows them to buy groceries and hot meals, he said.
“We’re also providing funding and loans for small businesses, farmers, and ranchers,” said Biden.
Additionally, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, Biden said the federal government is already investing “hundreds of millions” of dollars in New Mexico for drought relief, wildfire mitigation and water infrastructure projects.
In a lighter moment, Biden also said he’s learned something about Gov. Lujan Grisham – “When she asks for something, I just say, ‘Yes.’”
Lujan Grisham said she appreciated the president’s visit to the state and his commitment that the federal government will be there for the long haul to help the fire-impacted New Mexico communities recover.
“And your administration has leaned in from the very beginning, not only identifying how the fire was caused, by actions of the U.S. Forest Service, but recognizing that we need to do things differently, together,” said Lujan Grisham.
“We are grateful for that assistance, we are grateful for the investments that you continue to make in the state to make sure that we are as safe as possible,” she said.