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Draft FEMA rules give New Mexico fire victims 25% of what their trees were worth

Burned trees stand on the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar on Sept. 12, 2022. (Megan Gleason/Source NM)
But the rules are subject to change, a FEMA official says

Those who lost acres of trees to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire are asking the federal agency overseeing $2.5 billion in aid to change what they say is an improper cap on the amount they can receive for burned trees, which make up a significant amount of expected claims under the act.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week published 20 pages of preliminary regulations for how victims of the biggest fire in state history can receive compensation for their damages.

Congress in late September passed the huge compensation program to pay people who lost property to the wildfire that the federal forest service lit. Two escaped burns that burned more than 530 square miles of land in and around Mora and San Miguel Counties.

Submit a Notice of Loss form:

Email: fema-hermits-peak@fema.dhs.gov

Mail: FEMA Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office

P.O. Box 1329

Santa Fe, NM 87504

Public meetings

Dec. 1, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Mora High School, 10 Ranger Road, Mora, N.M.

Dec. 15, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Old Memorial Middle School, 947 Legion Drive, Las Vegas, N.M.

Jan. 5, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Mora High School, 10 Ranger Road, Mora, N.M.

One of those rules was criticized repeatedly at a meeting Thursday night in a middle school lecture hall in Las Vegas, N.M., where about 100 people showed up to provide public comment. It would cap the amount paid for “trees and other landscaping to 25% of the pre-fire value of the structure and lot.”

Trees on private land are essential to many livelihoods in the burn scar – for firewood, Christmas tree sales and other uses.

Thousands of acres of private forest land burned when the blaze spilled from federal forests. One woman who spoke, Tina Clayton, said the government should change the rule.

“We should be compensated 100% of what was burned on the property. Trees have value not only in providing wood, but they also clean our air,” she said. “And we haven’t charged the government for that.”

The rule was included as a vestige of a program that the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act was modeled after. In 2000, Congress passed a law to compensate victims of a botched prescribed burn started by the National Park Service near Los Alamos.

Much of the language in the interim rules is carried directly from that law, even though the destruction and the people impacted are quite different. In Los Alamos, victims were often homeowners and themselves federal employees at national laboratories.

Fire victims this time around are are less well-off, less able to prove damage and ownership of structures lost, and live in more rural areas. There are also far more small farmers and ranchers. There are at least 2,000 farms in Mora and San Miguel Counties, where most of the fire burned, according to recent Census figures.

Angela Gladwell, the FEMA official in charge of the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Claims Office, told Source New Mexico after the meeting that the 25% cap is one of many rules the agency could change before the rules are official. She also noted that the agency had to publish the draft rules, a process that often takes months, in a very short time-frame, due to the requirements in the law.

“I can’t comment on that (whether the cap will change),” she said. “But I can say that we were working under a statutory deadline of 45 days, so a lot of the baseline of what we issued is based on Cerro Grande. We’re going to consider the comments that we’ve received.”

FEMA officials did not answer any of the questions asked during the public comment meeting, saying that the gathering’s purpose was to hear and take down comments to be considered when the agency revises its rules. Each comment will get a response when the agency publishes its final rules in a couple months, officials said.

FEMA is holding three more meetings as part of the public comment portion of its rule-making.