Balderas asks Homeland Security secretary to help wildfire victims

Dec. 9—As Northern New Mexico residents continue to face obstacles in their recovery from the largest wildfire in state history, Attorney General Hector Balderas urged U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday to take actions to make their lives easier.

"The challenges are many, including cumbersome processes for accessing critical aid to advance their recovery," Balderas wrote in a letter to Mayorkas. "For example, many families continue to struggle to access disaster relief funding because families are simply without the resources even to meet the burdens of the regulatory process."

Balderas also wrote many families and groups that serve the community, such as acequia associations, are unable to quantify the damages they suffered in the massive Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire — which the U.S. Forest Service ignited as two separate prescribed burns that blew out of control — because they don't have the money to hire scientific experts to do the assessments.

"These are not the only challenges New Mexicans face in their effort to recover from the disaster, but they highlight the need for flexible, localized regulation in the post-disaster recovery effort," wrote Balderas, who grew up in Wagon Mound in Mora County, one of the counties hit hardest by the wildfire.

Balderas, whose second term as attorney general ends this month, raised three issues related to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's current rule making under the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act. He called them "critical to the legislation and its impact on our communities."

First, Balderas is "strongly" encouraging the department to appoint a manager "with both prior judicial experience and a local connection to our communities and laws" to oversee the program instead of relying on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's administrator to do it.

"I firmly believe that if FEMA appoints a local manager who is steeped in the issues particular to these communities and is well-versed in New Mexico law, the regulations will optimally achieve the intention of the Act," he wrote.

Second, Balderas wants FEMA to promulgate a rule that would allow residents to file claims of noneconomic damages.

"Due to the magnitude of the fire's devastation on these communities, it is imperative that these families have an opportunity to seek redress beyond simply economic damages," he wrote. "The devastation from these fires impact every facet of these communities' existence."

Finally, Balderas is asking FEMA to remove the cap on the recovery for tree damages, which he called arbitrary.

"The initial regulations limit the amount a fire victim may recover for damages to trees to 25% of the pre-fire value of the property," he wrote. "This cap is contrary to New Mexico law and will prevent fire victims from obtaining a full recovery, particularly given the unique circumstances of this fire in which properties with many acres of trees and small homes are commonplace."

Balderas sent a copy of the letter to New Mexico's congressional delegation, as well as other state, county and city officials.

"From day one, Senator [Ben Ray] Luján has been in regular contact with officials from across the federal government — from FEMA to the White House — to ensure that New Mexicans are made whole following the devastating Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire," spokesman Adán Serna wrote in an email. "The Senator secured $2.5 billion in relief for families and businesses impacted by the fire, and he remains focused on ensuring that FEMA swiftly and efficiently carries out the requirements of the bill."

Luján and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández both noted the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Claims Office will be hosting job fairs in Santa Fe and Las Vegas next week with a focus of hiring locally.

"We need people in the Hermit's Peak Claims Office who understand the unique challenges and culture of the affected communities as claims are filed, reviewed, and ultimately determined," Leger Fernández said in a statement. "Hiring local is essential to build trust in the Hermit's Peak Claims Office and make sure the claims process is as easy and fast as possible for New Mexicans who have lost so much"

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.