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ABQ JOURNAL - OPINION: NM should assume claims of wildfire victims and make them whole

By Denise Ramonas / Santa Fe resident

Apr 8, 2024

April 6 was the two-year anniversary of the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

The Greeks distinguished between tragedy and pathos.

Tragedy is a calamity afflicting an individual or community through no fault of their own.

It was tragic for the residents of Mora, San Miguel, and Colfax counties whose property was destroyed by a poorly planned prescribed burn on a red flag day that predictably quickly became an out-of-control wildfire.

Pathos is a calamity brought on through a fault or vice.

It became pathetic when New Mexico’s elected representatives failed to follow up, and failed to stay on top of taking care of New Mexicans.

I worked for Pete V. Domenici when the Cerro Grande prescribed burn near Los Alamos turned into a wildfire. The residents were fully compensated quickly and without the need for lawyers. Both Sens. Domenici and Jeff Bingaman leaned hard on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take care of New Mexicans so that they could rebuild as quickly as possible.

Staff met with FEMA almost every day to review claims. The only question was: “Did it burn?” If the answer was yes, the response was: “Pay the claim.” Years later the Inspector General found little or no fraud.

For the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, President Biden came to New Mexico. He promised full restitution while standing next to our governor with TV cameras rolling.

The president did not say that victims would be compensated minus FEMA’s administrative costs or lawyers’ fees. Yet his administration has earmarked approximately $1 billion — a quarter of the $4 billion appropriated — for its cost of administering the program. That is over $1 billion in costs to have paid $465 million claims so far.

Our senators and congresswomen brag about appropriating the funds. They deserve credit, but 80% of the money has been sitting in Washington for over a year doing nothing to help people rebuild their lives.

Former elected officials, through their law firms, are trying to make a buck claiming that lawyers are necessary to get adequate compensation. Former New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egoff and former State Auditor Brian Colón should be ashamed for taking advantage of this tragedy.

So what can be done?

The governor has indicated her intention to call a special session to address the unfinished business of crime legislation. Not taking care of the fire victims is also unfinished business.

The state has historic surpluses. Use it to help the victims, rather than earmark money for capital projects that will never reach completion — the proof is the backlog of $5 billion in past, incompletely funded projects.

Republican Senate candidate Nella Domenici is a woman of action. The first thing she did after declaring her candidacy for the U.S. Senate was to develop a proposal to pay the victims of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire. During the legislative session, Nella wrote the governor outlining her plan.

The state should assume the claims of the fire victims. Advance the amounts claimed. Enact a rebuttable presumption that the claims are valid and pay the victims.

The state would then fight with FEMA’s bureaucracy. This would give the attorney general something to do other than design a new Department of Justice seal and matching letterhead.

It is spring. Let’s make this season of rebirth and hope for a deadline to fulfill the promises to the state’s unfortunate.


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