By C. Douglas Golden August 2, 2022 at 8:03am
When the federal government started a wildfire that burned 432 homes in New Mexico back in May, President Joe Biden promised that the U.S. government would be footing the bill.
“Today, I’m announcing the federal government’s covering 100 percent of the cost,” Biden said during a June 11 speech at the New Mexico State Regional Training Installation Facility in Santa Fe.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case, according to Reuters.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now telling victims that they need to share the cost of the fire because Biden’s declaration didn’t waive a federal statute requiring cost-sharing.
According to The Associated Press, the wildfire — the largest in the state’s history — resulted from two controlled burns by the U.S. Forest Service in regions known as Calf’s Canyon and Hermit’s Peak.
Lo and behold, the controlled burns got out of control. The resulting fire incinerated 432 residences over a 530-square-mile area, Reuters reported.
The burn damage consisted “of mostly privately owned forests and meadows, much of it held by members of centuries-old Indo-Hispano ranching communities,” the report said.
During his remarks in Santa Fe, Biden made it clear there was a bit of an asterisk to the promise that 100 percent of the cost would be borne by the federal government.
According to a White House transcript of his remarks, the president noted that “we have a responsibility, as a government, as a — to deal with the communities who are put in — in such jeopardy” and vowed that the federal government would cover “100 percent of the cost of debris removal and emergency protective measures for the next critical months.”
However, he added that the funding was intended to “be a strong bridge until we — that we pass the — the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act.”
If that law passes, it could provide total federal compensation — although not in the near term, given that the legislation isn’t likely to be voted on until the fall. Thus, for the moment, many of the fire victims now have to pay for the damage the federal government caused.
Take Daniel Encinias, a 55-year-old rancher who met Biden during his visit to New Mexico. He’s living in a camping trailer next to the ashes of his Tierra Monte, New Mexico, home. He’s not alone, either: His wife, Lori, his three teenagers and 12 pets are all in there, too.
He was also told by the Department of Agriculture he would get quick support at minimal cost. That’s a good thing because, as with many in his low-income corner of the world, he didn’t have insurance.
That’s not quite how it worked, however.
“Encinias submitted an application to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to fix his well, but was told to share 25% of costs based on a federal statute that could not be waived as it did not fall under Biden’s declaration,” Reuters reported.
“Encinias said he was told by NRCS officials his application would be considered in September and recovery work would begin six to 12 months thereafter if he was accepted.”
“Why the hell am I going to pay anything when I didn’t cause this damn fire?” he said.
After starting New Mexico fire, U.S. asks victims to pay
Encinias, a retired electrician, is doing some of the work himself. As for feeding his cattle, he’s been forced to buy hay because the baler he owns was destroyed in the fire.
The family is surviving on the $37,000 maximum Federal Emergency Management Agency payout for the destruction of their five-bedroom house in the fire.
“I’m hoping that finally something works out where it helps the people,” Encinias said.
Then there’s rancher Kenny Zamora, who saw 170 acres of his forest burned. Following the fire, heavy rains caused debris to slide down hills no longer able to absorb water, leaving his pastures covered in 2 feet of muck.
“If you don’t have insurance, you’re pretty much on your own,” he said.
He’s not kidding. After applying to the USDA’s Farms Service Agency for help to feed his livestock, he was told he wasn’t eligible, with USDA officials telling him the Emergency Forest Restoration Program in the area hasn’t been funded yet.
These two are hardly alone, according to Reuters.
“Many fire-hit families cannot afford sharing at least 25% of costs on the USDA’s Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) which offers relief such as stabilization of burn areas prone to flash flooding, according to New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy. Residents sometimes own large areas of land passed down from 1800s Spanish-Mexican land grants while working blue-collar jobs,” the report said.
“They’re really struggling,” the state forester said.
So, what happens to people like Encinias in the interim?
Don’t ask the local NRCS office in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Encinias had applied for aid. Its response to Reuters’ request for comment was to direct the wire service to the national office. The national office, however, didn’t respond to the request. Neither did the White House.
Biden made a promise. Yet his administration has been more concerned with getting its mega-spending bills through Congress than with delivering for these ranchers.
“It’s not a gift,” the president said in June. “We have a responsibility to help this state recover, to help the families who have been here for centuries, and the beautiful northern New Mexico villages who can’t go home and whose livelihoods have been fundamentally changed.”
If this really is a responsibility of his administration, he needs to start acting that way.
C. Douglas Golden, Contributor,
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he’s written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.