ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- More victims of a devastating wildfire sparked last year by the U.S. Forest Service in northern New Mexico are getting compensated, with payouts to landowners totaling more than $14 million as of early next week, federal emergency managers said.
Congress set aside nearly $4 billion at the end of last year to pay claims resulting from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. Officials have acknowledged that the recovery process would be long and challenging, but many residents and some lawmakers have been frustrated with the pace.
Angela Gladwell, the director of the claims office, said more than 1,600 notices of loss have been filed so far and that her office has around $50 million worth of claims that are currently being processed. She estimated her office would be operational for the next five to six years to ensure that "everyone gets every penny that they are due."
"We're excited because this funding will begin to provide some much needed relief to our claimants who have been patiently waiting for an opportunity to start recovering," Gladwell told The Associated Press.
The claims office also recently began working with the National Flood Insurance Program so that eligible claimants can receive five years of flood insurance protection, with premiums paid by the claims office. One of the big concerns for residents has been post-fire flooding, particularly in the spring as snow melts. Now that concern also extends to the summer rainy season.
The claims office has had about 350 requests for flood policies, and many already have been approved.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is among those who have said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to act faster to get payments out to New Mexicans who are still suffering more than a year after the fire.
"While we're glad to see these funds finally start flowing, the federal government has a long way to go to meet its commitment to make impacted New Mexicans whole," Caroline Sweeney, the governor's spokesperson, said Friday.
Numerous missteps by forest managers resulted in prescribed fires erupting last spring into what became the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history. The blaze forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from villages throughout the Sangre de Cristo mountain range as it burned through more than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills.
The fire destroyed homes and livelihoods -- and forced the Forest Service to review its prescribed fire polices before resuming operations last fall. Experts have said the environmental consequences will span generations.
The U.S. Forest Service also recently acknowledged that another 2022 fire in northern New Mexico that burned near Los Alamos was caused by prescribed fire operations.
Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico said Friday that he plans to introduce legislation that would expand the claims process to cover losses from that blaze.
Federal officials said they were aware of those plans and were reviewing what additional resources might be needed if such legislation were to pass. They also acknowledged that it has taken time to build the compensation program to address losses from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
"This was the largest fire in the state of New Mexico. It has types of losses that are extraordinarily complex," Gladwell said, adding that the program needed to be flexible so wildfire victims would have options.
The claims office has a staff of nearly 90 people, but more are needed as more claims are expected to come in, Gladwell said.
Meanwhile, members of Congress have been pressuring the Forest Service to do more to address a wildfire crisis that they say will destroy more landscapes, communities and livelihoods as long-term drought persists around the West. The Biden administration says it has been trying to turn the tide through a multibillion-dollar cleanup of forests choked with dead trees and undergrowth.