NM Dem Delegation Introduces Hermits Peak Bill

US Sen. Ben Ray Luján modeled the bill on the law that compensated victims of the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire

The Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation today introduced legislation aimed at compensating victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. If adopted, The Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to design and administer a program for fully compensating those who suffered personal injury, property losses, business and financial losses resulting from the Hermit’s Peak Fire.

The compensation would include loss of property and businesses, as well as financial deprivations.

US Sen. Ben Ray Luján tells SFR he modeled the bill on the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, sponsored by the late US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, in the wake of the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, which, like Hermits Peak, grew from a prescribed burn.

“We changed it so that it fits for the moment,” Luján said via a phone interview prior to introducing the bill. He said he began looking for legislative and administrative remedies following President Joe Biden’s approval of a disaster declaration for New Mexico on May 4, and in the aftermath of speaking with evacuees from Mora County.

“In my conversations, in the gyms and other areas where people are now staying, they said, ‘We need help now. And Ben, please continue fighting for us.’ So I was very happy when we found this legislation.”

Domenici’s model works for the present moment, Luján noted, because Hermits Peak “was started as a control burn. So, in my opinion, there’s liability by the federal government here, and that’s why there should be additional support.”

The Cerro Grande Fire ultimately burned nearly 48,000 acres and caused $1 billion in damages. Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon, as of press time, had burned more than 236,000 acres and was 33% contained. Approximately 25,000 people from San Miguel and Mora counties have been evacuated, and more than 200 homes have been destroyed thus far.

“I have not heard any estimates,” of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, Luján said, “and I don’t believe any estimates will be given until the fire is put out.” But based just on acreage alone and its low containment, “I’m very concerned to the damage that has been done.” Moreover, “we should always remember that there’s no dollar amount that will replace the harsh conditions that families are facing or what they’ve lost in these fires already.”

Luján said he and his staff have been working with impacted constituents, such as a woman he met at an evacuation center in Peñasco who was concerned about running out of insulin.

“And so she’s been able to work with the State of New Mexico, [Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham], to her credit, spoke to her the day before I was there. And so they are making sure she has help. We’ve exchanged information and we’re checking in on her and her family to make sure that nothing like that [happens]. I think everyone forgets that whether it’s looking after someone that may need help with a prescription, or a health insurance company who may be giving them a hard time, or looking to get to a safe place to sleep and food to eat and clothing and shelter—it’s all needed. And it’s going to take all hands on deck, whether it’s volunteers, it’s neighbors and friends, or folks that have been entrusted as elected leaders to to fight to make sure families have everything that they need.”

While acknowledging the damage being wrought by the fire is “heartbreaking,” Luján said watching people come together to help is also heartening. In Peñasco, he saw a woman with whom he went to high school volunteering.

“This fire wasn’t in her community,” he said. “But she was cooking, she was gathering donations, she was gathering clothing. She was looking to see how she could get massage therapists to go to these facilities to provide help to these families. It’s that generosity…you look at it and it does warm your heart. But then you visit with the families, and many of them were seniors that were forced out of their homes to save their lives, and they didn’t leave with much. And so all of us across our state, we need to count our blessings, but also do everything we can to help these families that are in need and many that are in distress.”

US Sen. Martin Heinrich and US Reps. Teresa Leger Fernandez and Melanie Stansbury also introduced the bill today.

“The historic wildfires burning across our state have put so many New Mexicans in impossible situations,” Heinrich said in a statement. “I am working closely with our entire congressional delegation to pull every lever we can to usher the federal resources New Mexico needs to respond to these fires, rebuild our homes and communities, and combat the elevated wildfire risks fueled by the climate crisis going forward.”

In addition to introducing the Hermits Peak legislation, Luján also saw the passage today by the US House of Representatives of legislation to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), a law that would have otherwise expired this July. Both Luján and Heinrich co-sponsored the bill, which was carried by US Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT. The bill now heads to Biden to be signed. The bill passed the House on a voice vote, with both US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-NM and US Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-NM, speaking on its behalf.

“More than 30 years later, too many downwinders and uranium workers continue to fall ill because of the government’s nuclear testing program,” Leger Fernández said on the House Floor. “They still deserve justice under the law.”

Leger Fernández, Luján and Heinrich also are sponsors in their respective chambers of legislation introduced last year that would amend and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and, among other provisions, extend its coverage to include the historically excluded Tularosa Basin Downwinder community—people who lived near the Trinity explosion in 1945. Luján has introduced legislation seeking their inclusion since he was first elected to the US House in 2009.

“No one that can answer to me why [the Tularosa community] was left out. We need to right that injustice,” Luján said, “and also provide coverage to those uranium mine workers that worked beyond 1971. The original legislation covers those through 1971. But the post ‘71 workers were left out. And that’s those are two big things that this legislation will cover.”

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