New Mexico bill recovers from wildfire and passes first test

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — A measure that would pave the way for New Mexico to provide local governments with interest-free loans to repair or replace public infrastructure damaged by wildfires or post-fire flooding has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The bill comes as the arid state recovers from a historic wildfire that started last year when mandatory firefighting measures directed by the US government turned into a conflagration that charred more than 530 square miles (1,370 square kilometers) of mountainsides and valleys—taking with it hundreds of homes, livelihoods, and cultural connections that generations of families in northern New Mexico had built with their rural surroundings.

Experts have warned the environmental fallout will stretch for decades, with one of the most immediate concerns being flooding as snow begins to melt at higher elevations this spring.

Congress and President Joe Biden have acknowledged the damage done and approved nearly $4 billion in recovery funds. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still in the process of getting its claims offices up and running in New Mexico, and local officials expect it will take time for the aid to filter through.

Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat, said his constituents are in dire need.

“FEMA’s resources are slow to come and are not intended to distract from the institution and the work it is doing, but to show the public that it is urgent,” he told members of the Senate Conservation Committee Monday.

The legislation would set aside $100 million for counties, cities and towns to begin work on projects that could include a water treatment plant in Mora County or roads, bridges and fences in Las Vegas, where thousands of residents have been forced to to evacuate as the fire approached last spring.

The state Treasury and Administration would administer the loan program. The bill does not say how the applications would be reviewed or approved, and does not provide a timetable or repayment terms.

Proponents say state funding would go to projects that FEMA has indicated will fall under federal guidelines. That means FEMA funds could later be used by local governments to pay off state loans.

Federal officials worked on damage control in the months after the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, while the US Forest Service resumed operations statewide after a 90-day hiatus to review prescribed fire safety policies and procedures. They have vowed things will be done differently after acknowledging missteps and mistakes were made.

Forest officials said at Monday’s meeting that the landscape has become drier and the weather more unpredictable in the face of climate change.

Some listeners echoed those concerns as the committee considered a separate bill that would ban mandatory burnings by government agencies during New Mexico’s dry, windy season. The measure was filed, but Republican Senator Ron Griggs of Alamogordo said something had to be done to protect residents.

“If we really believe that mandatory burns won’t cause more fires in the future, then we’re kidding ourselves,” he said.

State Forester Laura McCarthy testified that prescribed fire is an invaluable tool and that since New Mexico is such a large state that one area could be dry while another with, it would be a disservice to limit the schedule of projects Snow could be covered same time.

Mary Kay Root, a volunteer firefighter, fought back tears as she told the committee that she, her sister and her mother had all lost their homes. Their home near the base of Hermits Peak was reduced to rubble.

She said there had been no consultation from the Forest Service with local volunteer fire departments.

“Everyone was aware that this was not a day to start a fire,” she said. “We had already started letting the people in the canyon know not to burn their brushes because it was just too windy and way too dry. I hope things like this can be restricted in the future.”