(SANTA FE, N.M.) — President Joe Biden is focusing on his administration’s efforts to tackle wildfires during Saturday’s visit to New Mexico, where residents are enraged that federal officials allowed planned burns to spread out of control, leading to the largest blaze in recorded state history.
The fire has been contained on several fronts, but is still burning and conditions are dangerously hot and dry. It has destroyed more than 430 homes across 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) since early April, according to federal officials.
Evacuations have displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage. Fear of flames is giving way to concern about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fire penetrated soil and roots.
The blaze is the latest reminder of Biden’s concern about wildfires, which are expected to worsen as climate change continues, and how they will strain resources needed to fight them.
“These fires are blinking ‘code red’ for our nation,” Biden said last year after stops in Idaho and California. “They’re gaining frequency and ferocity.”
In New Mexico, investigators have tracked the two source fires to burns that were set by federal forest managers as preventative measures. A group of Mora County residents sued the U.S. Forest Service this past week in an effort to obtain more information about the government’s role.
Ralph Arellanes of Las Vegas, New Mexico, said many ranchers of modest means appear unlikely to receive compensation for uninsured cabins, barns and sheds that were razed by the fire.
“They’ve got their day job and their ranch and farm life. It’s not like they have a big old house or hacienda — it could be a very basic home, may or may not have running water,” said Arellanes, a former wildland firefighter and chairman for a confederation of Hispanic community advocacy groups. “They use it to stay there to feed and water the cattle on the weekend. Or maybe they have a camper. But a lot of that got burned.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 890 disaster relief claims worth $2.7 million for individuals and households.
On Thursday, the Biden administration extended eligible financial relief to the repair of water facilities, irrigation ditches, bridges and roads. Proposed legislation from U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., would offer full compensation for nearly all lost property and income linked to the wildfire.
Biden, speaking to reporters in Los Angeles before flying to New Mexico, said he supports having the federal government cover the bill for damage from the fire, although he said it would take an act of Congress.
Jennifer Carbajal says she evacuated twice from the impending wildfire at a shared family home at Pandaries in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The house survived while about 50 neighboring homes burned along with the tanks that feed the municipal water system, leaving no local supply of potable water without truck deliveries.
“There is no long-term plan right now for water infrastructure in northern New Mexico,” Carbajal said.
She said matters are worse in many hardscrabble communities across fire-scarred Mora County, where the median household income is roughly $28,000 — less than half the national average.
“They barter a lot and really have never had to rely 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.”
George Fernandez of Las Vegas, New Mexico, says his family is unlikely to be compensated for an uninsured, fire-gutted house in the remote Mineral Hills area, nor a companion cabin that was built by his grandparents nearly a century ago.
Fernandez said his brother had moved away from the house to a nursing home before the fire swept through — making direct federal compensation unlikely under current rules because the house was no longer a primary residence.
“I think they should make accommodations for everybody who lost whatever they lost at face value,” Fernandez said. “It would take a lot of money to accomplish that, but it was something they started and I think they should.”