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Recovering from wildfire, New Mexico bill passes first test

Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire drifts over Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 7. A measure that would clear the way for zero-interest loans to local governments has cleared its first legislative hurdle. (Robert Browman/The Albuquerque Journal)
Measure would clear the way for zero-interest loans

ALBUQUERQUE – A measure that would clear the way for New Mexico to provide zero-interest loans to local governments to repair or replace public infrastructure damaged by wildfires or post-fire flooding has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The bill comes as the arid state recovers from a historic wildfire sparked last year when prescribed fire operations managed by the U.S. government ballooned into a conflagration that charred more than 530 square miles (1,370 square kilometers) of mountainsides and valleys – taking with it hundreds of homes, livelihoods and cultural connections that generations of northern New Mexico families had built with their rural surroundings.

Experts have warned that the environmental consequences will span decades, with one of the most immediate concerns being flooding as snow in the higher elevations begins to melt this spring.

Acknowledging the harm done, Congress and President Joe Biden have approved nearly $4 billion in recovery funds. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still getting its claims offices up and running in New Mexico and local officials expect it will take time for the aid to trickle down.

Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat, said his constituents are in dire need.

“The resources by FEMA are slow in coming and it's not to detract from the institution and the work that they've done, but it's to indicate to the public that there is an urgency,” he told members of the Senate Conservation Committee on Monday.

Firefighter Ryan Le Baron with the Elk Creek fire department in Colorado watches the fire blaze across a ridgeline near the Taos County line as firefighters from all over the country converge on Northern New Mexico to battle the Hermit's Peak and Calf Canyon fire on May 13. (Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican)

The legislation would set aside $100 million for counties, cities and municipalities to begin work on projects that could include a water treatment plant in Mora County or roads, bridges and fences in Las Vegas, where thousands of residents were forced to evacuate as the fire approached last spring.

The state Department of Finance and Administration would manage the loan program. The bill does not say how the applications would be considered or approved and does not include a timeline or repayment terms.

Supporters say the state funding would go toward projects FEMA has indicated it will cover under federal guidelines. That means FEMA funds could be used by the local governments later to repay the state loans.

Federal officials have been doing damage control in the months following the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze, with the U.S. Forest Service resuming operations nationwide after a 90-day pause to review prescribed fire policies and procedures. They have vowed things will be done differently after acknowledging missteps and mistakes were made.

Forest officials said at Monday's meeting that the landscape has become drier and the weather more unpredictable amid climate change.

Some in the audience echoed those concerns as the committee considered a separate bill that would prohibit prescribed burns by government agencies during New Mexico’s dry, windy season. The measure was tabled, but Republican Sen. Ron Griggs of Alamogordo said something needs to be done to protect residents.

“If we genuinely believe that prescribed burns are not going to cause additional fires in the future, I think we’re kidding ourselves,” he said.

State Forester Laura McCarthy testified that prescribed fire is an invaluable tool and that it would be a disservice to limit the timing of projects given that New Mexico is such a large state, where one area could be dry while another could be covered with snow at the same time.

Mary Kay Root, a volunteer firefighter, fought back tears as she told the committee that she, her sister and her mother all lost their homes. Her home near the base of Hermits Peak was reduced to ashes.

She said there was no consultation by the Forest Service with the local volunteer fire departments.

“Everyone was aware that was no day to start a fire,” she said. “We already had begun letting people in the canyon know to not go ahead and burn their brush because it was just too windy and far too dry. I hope this kind of thing can be curtailed in the future.”