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New Mexico's wildfire victims are still struggling

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As Congress wrangles over year-end spending, aid to New Mexico hangs in the balance - billions of dollars of additional aid to thousands of people whose homes and land were damaged this summer after prescribed burns on federal land went out of control. And it's on top of money already approved, money that KUNM's Alice Fordham reports still isn't reaching many victims.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire began in April. It burned nearly 350,000 acres. It ravaged Mora County, where small ranchers and loggers have lived for many generations.

PAULA GARCIA: So we're in the Mora Valley, and we're looking up at Holman, and you could see the burn scar above the village, and it's black.

FORDHAM: Paula Garcia is the head of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Acequias are a network of irrigation channels built by Spanish settlers centuries ago.

GARCIA: All of that soil that used to be held by the trees and the bushes and plants - that soil washed down along with ash.

FORDHAM: Garcia shows me what months of landslides did to one channel.

GARCIA: Normally, this would be about four feet deep, and now it's almost completely silted in.

FORDHAM: They're vital to farming, and she wants help to dig them out. I'm not the first person she's brought up here.

GARCIA: I would say we've done close to 20 tours with FEMA personnel. They're definitely interested. They're willing to help, but they have a lot of bureaucratic red tape to work through, and it's still moving slow. Things are making very slow progress with FEMA.

FORDHAM: The subject of FEMA elicits much frustration here. An initial FEMA response began during the fire. The area is poor, and many people lacked insurance, so they were invited to submit claims for anything not covered. But so far, fewer than a third of those who applied received any money. Then in September, the federal government passed legislation to compensate those affected by the fire for everything they lost because the fire was started by a federal agency when controlled burns by the U.S. Forest Service escaped. The law allocated an initial $2.5 billion for this. But New Mexico's congressional delegation is pushing for about another $3 billion to cover more expected claims. That's not the kind of money that usually gets spent around here.

JOSEPH GRIEGO: It's an obscene amount of money. It truly is.

FORDHAM: Joseph Griego directs the Mora Head Start program. He says this could change life here. But the agency who's administering this plan is FEMA, and...

GRIEGO: Now, the people who are working for FEMA - they're really nice. They're good people. They want to help. But they have all these restrictions the federal government has on them, right?

FORDHAM: He tried to help people through the initial claims process.

GRIEGO: It's almost designed to wear you down, right? Five times through FEMA for a denial, and now FEMA's in charge of $2.5 billion to determine if you get it or not.

FORDHAM: FEMA published a draft set of regulations for the claims process in November and is now taking public comment on them. One person who raised concerns was New Mexico's attorney general, Hector Balderas. He wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who oversees FEMA, to say that families don't have the resources to hire experts to quantify what they've lost, and that a cap on 25% of the value of trees on a property should be lifted. Angela Gladwell, the director of the claims office, says they're working on it.

ANGELA GLADWELL: And our intention is to make sure that we are finding ways to fully compensate for the value of those trees.

FORDHAM: The final regulations should be published in the new year. And Gladwell says people should be able to start filing claims around February. She does see the gap between the huge sums promised and people's suffering.

GLADWELL: We're seeing that total devastation of a way of life and communities and people that have lost everything. Many of our programs were put in place 20 or more years ago and were not designed for these types of needs.

FORDHAM: Meantime, in Mora, which sits more than a mile above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, it's extremely cold. Doreen Sandoval and her husband had a permit to gather firewood in a bit of forest that's now burned.

DOREEN SANDOVAL: We are struggling right now, and there's a lot of people that are struggling with that purpose of keeping their house heated up for the winter.

FORDHAM: They're eking out the firewood they have.

SANDOVAL: It's a bit colder, yes, because we're trying to just preserve - we've started trying to save our wood so we can make it through the winter.

FORDHAM: And then next year, she hopes the government will help her out.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Mora, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.