SANTA FE — The US federal government will fund New Mexico’s full wildfire response, President Joe Biden said on Saturday speaking from Santa Fe amid anger from survivors over the blaze that was started by federal officials.
“We have a responsibility to help the state recover,” Biden told elected officials and emergency responders at an afternoon briefing from the state’s capital, where he was reviewing efforts to fight the state’s biggest blaze in recorded history.
“Today I’m announcing the federal government’s covering 100 percent of the cost,” Biden said, though earlier in the day he had said he would need congressional approval for some funding.
“We will be here for you in response and recovery as long as it takes,” Biden said, adding that he saw an “astounding” amount of the perimeter of the territory that had burned in flight to Santa Fe.
“It looks like a moonscape,” he said.
Driven by drought and wind, the fire has destroyed hundreds of homes in mountains northeast of Santa Fe since two prescribed burns by the US Forest Service (USFS) went out of control in April.
Air Force One banked and circled around fire damage in New Mexico, allowing Biden to see burned forest and plumes of smoke from the sky before he landed and greeted the governor and other elected officials who have called for more financial support from the federal government.
Local officials told Biden that they did not currently have sufficient resources to predict weather or assist residents who have been affected.
“Our citizens are tired, angry, and afraid of the future they are facing,” said David Dye, New Mexico Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
‘THIS WAS MAN-MADE’
Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated Indo-Hispano farming villages with twice the national poverty rate, upending fragile economies where residents cut firewood and raise hay to get by.
“This is not a natural disaster, this was man-made by a government entity,” said Ella Arellano, whose family lost hundreds of acres of forest around the village of Holman. “It’s a mess, just a big mess that will take generations to recover from.”
With over 320,000 acres (129,500 hectares) of mountains blackened by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire – an area about the size of Los Angeles – communities are preparing for mudslides, ash flows and flooding in areas where extreme fire gave forest floors the water absorbency equivalent of asphalt.
So far the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has given over $3 million to more than 900 households. But maximum FEMA payouts of around $40,000 for destroyed houses are in some cases not enough to cover the loss of farm equipment that burned alongside homes, which at one house was likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
White House officials did not respond immediately to questions about whether Biden’s pledge of federal support would only cover emergency response or also include compensation for damages.
The blaze is burning along with another in southwest New Mexico that is the second largest in state history, underlining concerns that climate change is intensifying fires that overwhelm firefighters and threaten to eventually destroy most US Southwest forests.
Investigators found that a USFS controlled burn jumped out of bounds on April 6 to start the Hermits Peak Fire. The Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a USFS burn pile of logs and branches on April 19. The two fires merged on April 22.
To prevent fires from spreading, land managers sometimes use controlled burns to reduce small trees, shrubs and other material that fuel wildfires. The US Forest Service has since called for a temporary nationwide halt to the practice while it reviews procedures.
(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, and Trevor Hunnicutt in Santa Fe; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Aurora Ellis)