Biden faces fire and anger during visit to New Mexico


SANTA FE, NM (AP) — President Joe Biden will travel to New Mexico on Saturday to talk about his administration’s efforts to fight wildfires as residents simmer in anger at the way federal authorities have let the planned burns spiral out of control, leading to the state’s largest historic fire on record.

The fire has been brought under control on multiple fronts, but is still burning in dangerously hot and dry conditions. It has destroyed more than 430 homes in 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) since early April, according to federal officials.

The evacuations displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage. Fear of the flames gives way to worry about erosion and mudslides where the superheated fire has penetrated the ground and roots.

The blaze is the latest reminder of Biden’s concern about wildfires, which are expected to get worse as climate change continues, and how they will strain the resources needed to fight them.

“These fires are flashing ‘code red’ for our nation,” Biden said last year after stops in Idaho and California. “They are gaining in frequency and ferocity.”

In New Mexico, investigators tracked both fire sources to the burns that were started by federal forest managers as a preventative measure. A group of Mora County residents sued the US Forest Service this week in a bid to get more information about the government’s role.

Ralph Arellanes of Las Vegas, New Mexico, said many ranchers of modest means seem unlikely to receive compensation for uninsured cabins, barns and sheds that have been razed by fire.

“They have their day job and their ranch and farm life. It’s not like they have a big old house or a hacienda – it could be a very basic house, with or without running water,” said Arellanes, a former forest firefighter and president of a confederation of advocacy groups. of the Hispanic community. “They use it to stay there to feed and water livestock on weekends. Or maybe they have an RV. But a large part was burned.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 890 disaster relief requests worth $2.7 million for individuals and households.

On Thursday, the Biden administration extended eligible financial assistance to repair water facilities, irrigation ditches, bridges and roads. Legislation proposed by Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, DN.M., would provide full compensation for nearly all lost property and income related to the wildfire.

Jennifer Carbajal says she evacuated twice from the impending fire at a shared family home in Pandaria, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The house survived as about 50 nearby homes burned along with the tanks that supply the municipal water system, leaving no local drinking water supply without truck deliveries.

“There is no long-term plan at this time for water infrastructure in northern New Mexico,” Carbajal said.

She said things were worse in many difficult communities in fire-scarred Mora County, where the median household income is about $28,000, less than half the national average.

“They do a lot of bartering and have never had to rely on outside resources,” she said. “The very idea of ​​applying for a loan (from FEMA) is an immediate turn off for the majority of this population.”

George Fernandez of Las Vegas, New Mexico, says his family is unlikely to be compensated for an uninsured, burnt-out home in the remote Mineral Hills area, or a companion cabin his grandparents built years ago. almost a century.

Fernandez said her brother moved from the house to a retirement home before the fire spread, making direct federal compensation unlikely under current rules because the home was no longer a primary residence.

“I think they should make accommodations for anyone who lost what they lost at face value,” Fernandez said. “It would take a lot of money to accomplish that, but it’s something they started and I think they should.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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