Lujan Grisham: Federal authorities responsible for wildfire damage

Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire rises to join the clouds behind an old church in Llano, near Peñasco, on May 18. The Hermits Peak Fire started as a prescribed burn. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday the federal government faces significant legal liability for its role in igniting the largest wildfire in state history, Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak. Fire still burning in northern New Mexico.

She added that it is “problematic” that federal emergency assistance is not designed to fully compensate victims for their losses.

Responding to questions from reporters on Monday, Lujan Grisham said she had direct conversations with federal officials in Washington, DC, last week about the massive fire, at least part of which started after a prescribed burning has gotten out of control.

She compared federal responsibility for the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire to the infamous 2000 Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“They have a responsibility here – a bigger responsibility, in my opinion, than Los Alamos,” Lujan Grisham said.

The governor encouraged New Mexicans to register with to be eligible for assistance.

But she also noted that federal officials say FEMA assistance is not designed to fully compensate people for their losses. It is capped at $39,400 for home repairs and $39,400 for other costs.

“I find that problematic. … We’re going to find ways to make New Mexicans who have lost everything as whole as humanly possible,” Lujan Grisham said.

The governor welcomed the US Forest Service’s decision to suspend prescribed burns across the country for 90 days.

She said that was exactly what she asked for in a meeting with officials from the US Department of Agriculture.

Rules for prescribed burns are “outdated,” she said, and New Mexico will play a role in helping federal agencies develop more appropriate regulations for burns, which are used to clear brush and reduce fire risks.

“You can’t do what you did in New Mexico elsewhere in the West until we work together,” Lujan Grisham said of his conversation with federal officials.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire reached approximately 310,000 acres.

Lujan Grisham estimated last week that 1,000 to 1,500 structures had been lost in the blaze and that 15,000 to 18,000 people had fled the blaze.

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