Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still finalizing rules and accepting public comments on how it will spend about $2.5 billion on victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
But the director of the compensation program on Thursday, in a public meeting in Las Vegas, New Mexico, suggested one frequently criticized draft rule would likely change, and she defended why it was included in the first place.
The rule limits compensation for trees lost in the fire to 25% of their pre-fire value, which incensed many fire victims, some of whom lost hundreds of acres of trees to the fire.
“We also understand that this language may need to be changed to reflect the unique characteristics of the affected area for the Hermit’s Peak Fire,” said Angela Gladwell, director of the newly created claims office. “The interim final rule provides one way to value the landscaping aspects of vegetation and trees, but we are exploring various ways to ensure that we can provide for the full value of loss and reforestation associated with trees.”
The 25% cap never applied to those who harvested timber, sold Christmas trees or otherwise suffered a business or financial loss when the trees burned, Gladwell said. Still, she said FEMA will work to ensure those who lost trees on their property are compensated fairly.
“It’s our intention to design the Hermits Peak Fire Claims Office process so that all losses, including tree loss, will be addressed fairly and equitably,” she said.
Congress passed the $2.5 billion program in late September, along with a requirement that FEMA establish a brand new office to run it within 45 days. Because of that strict time frame, Gladwell said, some interim rules were copied from the Cerro Grande Fire Claims Office, which was established after the wildfire in Los Alamos in 2000 and provided the basis for the program this year, officials have said.
The Cerro Grande Fire affected many federal employees living in subdivisions, where trees were typically just landscaping. The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, however, destroyed swathes of forest on private land.
FEMA held its third public comment meeting on Thursday at a middle school lecture hall in Las Vegas. The agency will hold at least three more such meetings.
The agency is not responding to questions or concerns at these meetings, saving responses for when it issues its final rules. Gladwell’s comments came in the introduction to the meeting, when she was explaining how the claims process will work.
Despite her explanation, some fire victims and advocates who spoke at the meeting were still frustrated that the rule was published at all.
Tyler White, a farmer who lost a home and farm to the fire, pointed to the proposed 25% cap as reason FEMA should hire an independent claims manager to have the final say on all payments from the $2.5 billion fund.
“You cannot use the Cerro Grande Fire as a template for our community,” White said. “And to do that illustrates exactly why FEMA should not be a claims administrator.”
FEMA has said, however, that it will not appoint a separate claims administrator and that Gladwell will fill that role instead. Some advocates were asking for a local person, potentially a retired judge, who understands the particularities of northern New Mexico.
FEMA is holding job fairs to hire New Mexicans for important roles in the office, including the deputy director, ombudsman and claims navigators.
FEMA anticipates getting the office up and running by early 2023.