'Whatever it takes as long as it takes': Biden increases support for N.M. wildfire work
The president changed a FEMA policy to cover all expenses for 90 days after an incident; he wants the U.S. to fully cover Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire costs
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — President Joe Biden said Saturday he would support the federal government assuming the full cost of the 320,000-acre Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which has devastated a 500-square-mile chunk of Northern New Mexico and shaken its small, hardy villages to their core.
Those costs would include firefighting, debris removal and protective measures for affected communities.
But Biden also noted he would need help from Republicans in the U.S. Senate on a bill that would provide more money for recovery to residents who have lost their homes or suffered major damage than they're currently getting from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Biden, who spoke at the state Emergency Operations Center during a short stopover in Santa Fe, issued an executive order Saturday to change the policy of a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to cover 100 percent of the costs for the first 90 days after an incident.
Federal assistance recently approved for Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties covers only 75 percent of costs, leaving affected residents to pick up 25 percent.
Biden vowed to have the federal government assist New Mexico with getting through the largest wildfire in the state's history.
"We'll do whatever it takes as long as it takes," Biden said.
Under the president's order, the government will fully cover the costs of removing debris, such as burned and downed trees, from a property.
It also calls for full funding of emergency work — including the purchase of equipment and supplies for responders; supporting traffic control and other evacuation requirements; sheltering residents and establishing field camps and meals for responders.
New Mexico's congressional delegates have introduced a bill that, if passed, would create a disaster fund to help individual fire victims. In May, New Mexico Democrats introduced the Hermit's Peak Fire Assistance Act to provide additional compensation for those affected by the fire.
The legislation would require FEMA to design and administer a program to fully compensate those who suffered personal injury, property losses, business and financial losses resulting from the fire.
Under FEMA's grant program, New Mexicans can apply for disaster aid with no matching requirement. But it generally covers only a portion of the losses.
As of June 10, FEMA has approved more than $3 million to help 946 applicants recover from wildfires and windstorms, agency spokeswoman Angela Byrd wrote in an email.
Biden lauded the delegation's legislative effort and said the biggest hurdle for their bill will be in the Senate, where Democrats have a razor-thin majority.
Biden bemoaned the reports of this year's fires that have displaced people, destroyed hundreds of homes, shuttered schools and made the wilderness "look like a moonscape."
"I'm thinking about what you're thinking, and that's our responsibility," Biden said. "It's not a gift. 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."
Biden is the first sitting president to visit Santa Fe in two decades.
He met with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, members of the state's congressional delegation and state and local officials to discuss the fire's devastation and the plight of those who have suffered great loss from the two-month inferno that's still burning.
State and local officials have been lobbying Biden to have the federal government pick up the full cost of damage after the U.S. Forest Service acknowledged the fire was formed by two prescribed burns that went awry in the Santa Fe National Forest. One blew out of control northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., when unexpected gusts kicked up. The other was caused by a sleeper fire lying dormant in debris for months after a pile burn was ignited in January.
Biden said aside from the Forest Service pausing prescribed burns, federal officials are doing a 90-day review of how these so-called controlled fires are conducted to determine if any policy adjustments should be made.
Fortified by family, N.M. volunteer FD offers a light in the dark
With a backup generator at the station, members of the Cleveland, Holman, Encinal, Tramperos department work through the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire
Biden, wearing a blue sportscoat and sunglasses, arrived in Albuquerque early Saturday afternoon and was greeted by members of the congressional delegation, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Lujan Grisham. Upon arriving at the Emergency Operations Center, he spoke to reporters and then moved to another room, where he spoke to others. He also met with family members.
New Mexico, with a Democratic governor and nearly all Democratic congressional delegates, is friendly turf for Biden to make a goodwill stop.
Backing the request to give full relief to fire-affected residents could prove politically symbiotic for the governor and president in an election year. Lujan Grisham is now locked in a potentially competitive gubernatorial race, and Biden is hoping Democrats will win enough votes to keep control of the House and Senate.
So far, federal agencies have spared little expense, deploying as many as 3,000 personnel to fight the fire and dispatching teams to assess what is certain to be a long and costly recovery from a blaze that has destroyed at least 300 homes — Lujan Grisham has estimated the number at more than 1,000 — and inflicted vast damage on forests, watersheds, cultural sites and infrastructure.
At the start of Saturday's news conference, Lujan Grisham thanked Biden for his New Mexico visit and for offering help to the fire-stricken state. But she also said the government should take full responsibility for the fire and bear the full costs.
"It's about the blood and sweat of generations of New Mexicans, who worked the land, who fed their families and raised their children there," Lujan Grisham said. "All of that just went up in smoke."
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