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U.S. approves $2.5B in fire aid for New Mexico victims

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández listens to wildfire victims during a roundtable discussion Monday in Albuquerque. A government spending bill includes $2.5 billion to help New Mexico communities recover from the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history. It was sparked by the federal government. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

ALBUQUERQUE – Northern New Mexico residents on Friday celebrated the passage of a government spending bill that includes $2.5 billion in relief for those affected by a historic wildfire sparked earlier this year by the federal government.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who represents the area charred by the wildfire, called it a “good down payment” on what ultimately will be needed to rebuild the region and restore trust.

The Democratic congresswoman began pressing for the financial assistance not long after the conflagration began, noting that the government bore responsibility and that coming up with matching money for disaster relief funds would be beyond the means of ranchers and farmers who lost their livelihoods.

“In this instance, you have the federal government saying it was our fault. We acknowledge it and the way we seek forgiveness is by providing compensation. And that is the beginning of the healing process,” Leger Fernández said during an interview. “They are living up to their obligation to do what’s right and pay compensation for the harm that they caused.”

The largest wildfire in the state’s history, the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire blackened more than 530 square miles in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Several hundred homes were destroyed and experts have said some of the environmental damage will take generations to repair.

Telephone poles and other communication infrastructure were destroyed. Some villages went without electricity for weeks, and grazing areas were flooded with ash and debris as summer rains pounded bare mountainsides after the fire.

For the region’s economic hub – the community of Las Vegas, New Mexico – the fire put drinking water supplies in an even more precarious position. Drought and aging infrastructure already were problems, but debris flowing down the Gallinas River forced the city to seek emergency funding to install a temporary treatment system.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited with wildfire victims after a recent weekend of campaigning in New Mexico. She acknowledged that the federal government would need to do more to make residents whole.

The spending measure was signed Friday by President Joe Biden.

With the funding, FEMA will administer a program to fully compensate those who suffered personal injury or business, income and financial losses due to the fire.

Paula Garcia, who heads the New Mexico Acequia Association, said the approval marks historic action by Congress. She said many acequias – or traditional earthen irrigation canals – were damaged by the fire and post-fire flooding.

“While the losses are immeasurable, the legislation is a step toward rebuilding family homes, farms, ranches, and businesses in the hope that our legacy as land-based people will continue for our children and grandchildren,” she told The Associated Press.

Many residents have voiced frustrations with federal emergency managers as they apply for aid, saying they don’t understand the culture of rural New Mexico.

“The agency will need to up their game to manage this funding effectively for the benefit of our communities,” Garcia said.