Bill would provide loans for wildfire recovery

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The remains of trees burned by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire are shown last week on Holman Hill in Mora County. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – While waiting on federal relief funds to arrive, New Mexico lawmakers could move quickly during this year’s 60-day legislative session to provide funding for recovery efforts within the burn scar of a massive wildfire complex that burned more than 340,000 acres last year.

A bill backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would provide up to $100 million in state funds for zero-interest loans to towns, villages and counties to fix washed out roads, damaged culverts and wiped-out acequias.

“The intent of this bill is to try to restore the basic services that are necessary in these communities,” said Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat who’s sponsoring the legislation.

He said many local residents displaced by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire are still living in other parts of New Mexico due to the damage and are waiting to return home until at least some repairs are made. There’s also been an increase in stress, illness and suicide among area residents in the fire’s aftermath, he said.

“This is having a definite mental and physical impact on the population,” Campos said in a recent interview.

The aftermath of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which began as two U.S. Forest Service burns and burned a largely rural area roughly the size of Los Angeles, stoked anger among many affected residents at the federal government’s role in the blaze and the process for financial reimbursement for losses.

While Congress has approved $2.5 billion in relief funds for victims of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the distribution of money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency has proven to be laborious for many applying for reimbursement of losses, Campos said.

In her State of the State Address on the opening day of the session, Lujan Grisham touted the effort to distribute upfront state funds to jump-start recovery efforts, saying the wildfire and its fallout had deeply impacted more than 30,000 state residents.

“I propose that we make sure that fund is available so that we can begin rebuilding their homes, their lives, their infrastructure without waiting for the federal government’s investments to be distributed,” the governor said.

She also vowed to push the federal government to follow through on President Joe Biden’s promise that affected areas would receive 100% reimbursement of costs, saying, “If FEMA wants to fight the governor and the Legislature of the state of New Mexico – bring it.”

Senate Bill 6

The funding in the bill proposed at the Roundhouse, Senate Bill 6, would be available through June 2024 and would take effect immediately upon being signed, provided it’s approved by at least a two-thirds vote margin in both the House and Senate.

Any loans distributed under the legislation would then be paid back once federal relief funds are received.

However, the funds would have to be spent on public infrastructure – not the rebuilding of personal property – under a constitutional “anti-donation clause” that prohibits state funds from being transferred directly to people or businesses.

San Miguel County Commissioner Harold Garcia said the state funding infusion would be welcomed, but said county officials would have their work cut out to spend it efficiently.

“If we know for sure the money is coming, we’re going to have to prepare financially and administratively,” Garcia told the Journal.

He said that could include hiring additional staffers to help with reporting requirements and preparing contracts with vendors to perform the various repair jobs.

“It’s going to be quite the task, but it needs to be done,” he said in an interview.

Human-caused

Meanwhile, the emergency recovery funds proposed by the legislation would only be available to cities and counties located within the burn scar of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire complex.

New Mexico, which has dealt with extreme drought conditions in recent years, also saw several other large wildfires last year, including the Black Fire that burned more than 325,000 acres in the Gila Wilderness northwest of Truth or Consequences and the McBride Fire that killed an elderly couple and destroyed more than 200 homes in the Ruidoso area in April 2022.

However, the Ruidoso blaze was determined to have been caused by a tree falling on power lines, while the Black Fire was determined to be a human-caused blaze.

In the wake of last year’s fire season, several other bills are expected to be debated dealing with wildfires, including a proposal by Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, to prohibit controlled burns during spring months.

There could also be measures to increase funding for rural emergency response providers amid a state revenue boom driven by record-high oil production in southeast New Mexico and an uptick in consumer spending.

As for the proposed emergency recovery funds, the bill is scheduled to receive its first hearing in a Senate committee this week.

In addition to Campos, it’s also co-sponsored by two other northern New Mexico lawmakers – Democratic Reps. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde and Ambrose Castellano of Las Vegas.

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