Pelosi calls Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire a 'tremendous mistake' by federal government

Sep. 26—ALBUQUERQUE — After hearing directly about the pain and trauma Northern New Mexico residents suffered as a result of the largest wildfire in state history, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled Monday additional wildfire relief could be headed to the region through a short-term funding bill.

"Later in the day we'll be introducing our continuing resolution," she said after a roundtable discussion with residents of Mora and San Miguel counties, referring to legislation designed to avert a government shutdown.

"I was hoping it would be [introduced] by now, but it'll be by this evening, and at that time we'll be happy to announce what is in the bill to be a very big start for what needs to be done to make people as whole as possible — never totally because you can't replace what you've lost in many respects, but you can build a better and new future, and that's what we owe you and that's what we're here to promise," she said.

Pelosi — who hosted a reception Sunday in Albuquerque to benefit U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury and congressional hopeful Gabe Vasquez, all Democrats — joined Leger Fernandez at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center on Monday morning to hear firsthand from people who were impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

Much of the roundtable discussion was held in private, but Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said he made it clear to Pelosi the federal government was "100 percent responsible" for the damage. The U.S. Forest Service started the fire as two separate prescribed burns that blew out of control.

"This was not a natural disaster," he said. "It was a man-made disaster, just like arson."

Trujillo said some of the students from Mora Public Schools did a "great job" telling Pelosi what it was like "living through this horrible disaster."

"I thought it was very fruitful, and I know that tonight is a very important night in Washington," he said. "They're on their way back to fight for the extension of some of these payments and the availability of more funding."

Trujillo said Pelosi didn't make any commitment residents would be made whole.

"From my understanding, it's more federal money that was not covered in other bills, like for acequias, damage to watersheds, those types of things that were sort of somehow omitted from other legislation that would be added to some of this legislation that they're hoping to introduce tonight," he said.

Trujillo said it will be up to New Mexico officials to keep reminding the federal government it has a responsibility to people who were impacted by the wildfire.

"Our jobs as elected officials is to hold them to the fire," he said.

Pelosi, who said she's been to New Mexico about 50 times, said she was moved by residents' stories, particularly those of youngsters who shared what they've endured.

"I know of the pride and the entrepreneurial spirit of New Mexico — it is the Land of Enchantment," she said. "But today [I was almost moved to tears] to hear the pain that was caused, the loss that came with all of that, the trauma and the impact that it has on our children."

Leger Fernández said hearing directly from people who were affected by the wildfire helps lawmakers in their decision-making.

"I think every time we hear the stories directly from those who have lived them, we are touched in our hearts, and when we are touched in our hearts, we are strengthened in our resolve," she said.

Leger Fernández, who represents Northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, is pushing for residents and business owners to be fully compensated for their losses under the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act. She and Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján introduced the bill, which was co-sponsored by the three other members of state's congressional delegation: Stansbury, Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell.

Asked whether the legislation would be included in the continuing resolution, Pelosi said an announcement would be forthcoming.

"Let me say it this way: I wish we could be announcing it now, so you can draw an inference from that," she said.

Leger Fernández said she won't stop advocating for the bill until it becomes law.

"We are pushed to have the Hermits Peak fire assistance bill in any and every single legislative vehicle that moves. We have already passed it out of the House twice, and we are working diligently, and I can tell you that I will never give up until we actually get it signed into law," she said.

Leger Fernández said the bill is intended to bring "healing and payment for the loss of income and homes and business."

The bill would eliminate federal funding matching requirements.

"We cannot have matches when you have destroyed the livelihood and so the [bill] provides that it will be 100 percent federal," Leger Fernández said. "We'd be eliminating those matches, which have been quite problematic."

Pelosi called the wildfire "an unusual disaster" because it could have been avoided.

"We like to think everything could be avoided, but this was actually a mistake — a tremendous mistake," she said.

"There is a recognition that this was avoidable, and that makes it shameful. But that makes it all the more reason for us to learn from it immediately," Pelosi added.

This is a developing story. Stay tuned for updates.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.