SANTA FE, NM (AP) — President Joe Biden is due to visit New Mexico on Saturday to discuss his administration’s efforts to fight wildfires, while residents smolder with anger at how federal officials have allowed planned burns to get out of hand control spread, resulting in the largest fire in recorded state history.
The fire has been contained on several fronts but is still burning in dangerously hot and dry conditions. According to federal officials, more than 430 homes in an area of 1,300 square kilometers have been destroyed since the beginning of April.
Evacuations have displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish colonial roots and high rates of poverty, causing untold environmental damage. Fear of flames gives way to concerns about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fires have invaded soil and roots.
The fire is the latest reminder of Biden’s concerns about wildfires, which are expected to get worse as climate change continues, and how they will strain the resources needed to fight them.
“These fires are flashing ‘code red’ for our nation,” Biden said last year after stops in Idaho and California. “They gain in frequency and ferocity.”
In New Mexico, investigators have traced the two initial fires to burns designated by federal forest managers as preventative measures. A group of Mora County residents this week sued the US Forest Service for more information about the government’s role.
Ralph Arellanes of Las Vegas, New Mexico, said many ranchers of modest means were unlikely to receive compensation for uninsured cabins, barns and sheds destroyed by the fire.
“They have their job and their ranch and farm life. It’s not like they have a big old house or a hacienda — it could be a very basic home, with running water or not,” said Arellanes, a former wilderness firefighter and chair of a confederation of Hispanic community advocacy groups . “They use it to stay there to feed and water the cattle at the weekend. Or maybe they have an RV. But a lot of it is burned.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 890 requests for disaster assistance worth $2.7 million for individuals and households.
On Thursday, the Biden administration expanded eligible financial relief to include repairs to water works, irrigation ditches, bridges and roads. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, DN.M.’s proposed legislation would provide full compensation for nearly all property and income losses associated with the wildfire.
Jennifer Carbajal says she was evacuated twice ahead of impending wildfire at a shared family home in Pandaries, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The house survived while about 50 neighboring houses burned along with the tanks feeding the city’s water system, leaving a local drinking water supply without truck deliveries.
“Right now, there is no long-term plan for water infrastructure in northern New Mexico,” Carbajal said.
She said the situation is worse in many hard-nosed communities in fire-ravaged Mora County, where the median household income is about $28,000 — less than half the national average.
“They trade a lot and have never had to rely on outside resources,” she said. “The whole idea of applying for a loan (from FEMA) is an instant turn off for the majority of this population.”
George Fernandez of Las Vegas, New Mexico, says his family is unlikely to be compensated for an uninsured fire-damaged home in the remote Mineral Hills area, nor for a companion cabin built by his grandparents nearly a century ago.
Fernandez said his brother had moved out of the home into a nursing home before the fire broke out — making direct federal compensation unlikely under current rules because the home is no longer a primary residence.
“I think they should make adjustments for everyone who lost what they lost at face value,” Fernandez said. “It would take a lot of money to do that, but it was something they started and I think they should do it.”