By Lt. Gov. Howie Morales May 10th 2024

Last month as victims of the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire commemorated the second anniversary of the devastating blaze, FEMA Assistant Administrator Colt Hagmaier apologized for the agency’s delays, “mistakes” and shortcomings. While the recognition of these failures is necessary, it hardly begins to address the profound suffering and loss experienced by Northern New Mexicans. More must be done – and fast. 

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire of 2022 was the most devasting fire in New Mexico history. The result of negligently managed prescribed burns set by the U.S. Forest Service, the fire destroyed more than 330,000 acres of land and caused more than 25,000 people to flee their homes. Thousands remain displaced to this day, and the burn scar has left the area vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. 

During a visit to New Mexico soon after the fire, President Biden acknowledged the federal government’s role in causing the destruction and promised victims full compensation for their total loss. While Northern New Mexicans mourned the loss of what could never be replaced – from homes to cherished family memorabilia, livestock, trees, and the connection to the land itself – we had reason to hope that President Biden’s promise would be fulfilled when New Mexico’s congressional delegation quickly secured the passage of the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act (HPFAA). It set aside nearly $4 billion to compensate victims. 

Sadly for too many victims, this was where hope both started and ended. The HPFAA designated FEMA to manage the claims process. What has transpired since has been a master class in bureaucratic dysfunction, incompetence, and sheer disregard for the law. This was further demonstrated by FEMA’s tragic error in judgement by assuming the disaster’s resemblance to the Cerro Grande Fire. It underscored a fundamental misunderstanding of the community’s needs and realities. The rich tapestry of life in Northern New Mexico, intertwined with the land not just for sustenance but for cultural heritage, was unraveled in days. FEMA’s delayed realization of its unique mistakes only deepened the insult to people’s injuries.

Last week, FEMA finally appointed a new permanent claims director, Jay Mitchell, who hails from New Mexico and holds professional experience in disaster management. If Mr. Hagmaier was sincere in his apology and his commitment to do better moving forward, here is what must change under Mr. Mitchell’s watch:

First, Mr. Mitchell must appoint a legal advisor, such as a retired judge or appellate justice, who possesses the necessary expertise to determine which damages are allowed under New Mexico law. This advisor should also ensure that the claims office is staffed with people who are appropriately trained to provide victims sound guidance and advice, and that claims review processes are accurate, consistent, efficient, and transparent, and based upon clear and fair assessment standards. After two years of disarray, anything less would be a disservice to the victims and a dereliction of the promises made.

Second, Mr. Mitchell must stop FEMA from behaving like a private insurance company and finally begin compensating victims for the full extent of damages allowed under New Mexico law. The HPFAA states specifically that “the laws of the State of New Mexico shall apply to the calculation of damages”. Under New Mexico law, wildfire victims are entitled to nuisance and trespass damages. State Attorney General Raúl Torrez recently issued an opinion clarifying that such damages are in fact available under New Mexico law, echoing earlier conclusions voiced by Governor Lujan Grisham and former Attorney General Hector Balderas. It is past time for FEMA to finally acknowledge this key point and start processing claims for all the damages to which victims are legally entitled. 

Northern New Mexico is one of the most beautiful corners of the country. Its people are some of the warmest and kindest. They did not deserve what happened to them, nor should they have to fight for what is rightfully owed to them. 

Everything about Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire situation was completely avoidable, from the fire itself to FEMA’s subsequent mismanagement. The latter, however, is fixable. I hope that Mr. Mitchell will stand up a system that works– with a New Mexican legal expert at his side – so that President Biden’s promise can be fulfilled at last, and our people and communities can finally begin to heal.