BY BEN RAY LUJAN
U. S. Senator
In early May, my brother Jerome and I discussed the seasonal chores we needed to do on our family farm in Nambé. He wanted to do a controlled burn of our acequia – a standard practice in early summer to clear acequias of debris.
Better safe than sorry, Jerome made a quick call to the Pojoaque Valley Fire Department to confirm the conditions were right for a safe burn. The answer he got was simple: No. It’s a red flag day.
That same week, the Hermits Peak fire – which has devastated more than 318,000 acres – broke out just north of Las Vegas. This fire resulted from a prescribed burn, which went ahead based on a lower assessed risk than the one determined by my local fire station.
Clearly, the Pojoaque Valley Fire Department made a better decision on that day, and the federal government bears full liability for this fire, having underestimated the exceptional risk. With homes and lives on the line, we cannot risk a similar lapse in the future.
That’s why I have pursued every available option – both at home and in Washington – since the onset of these historic fires to support a swift recovery and to identify and address future risks.
I have met with evacuees, community leaders and first responders from Las Vegas to Mora to Los Alamos, hearing their stories and reviewing my work to help folks rebuild. I have ensured that lines of communication with officials on the ground remain open as they work to contain these fires.
My staff – some of them affected by the fires themselves – have run a robust casework operation, securing emergency resources, supporting evacuation efforts and directing families to shelters. I encourage those who need assistance to reach out to my office so that my staff, for whom I am very thankful, can help.
Legislatively, my work has focused on responding to the urgent challenges New Mexicans face today and reducing risks from wildfires in the future.
I introduced the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, which is modeled after the assistance bill enacted shortly after the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire and will require the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to more fully compensate those who suffered injury, damage to property, or business losses due to the Hermits Peak Fire.
I also led the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act to invest in research and development to improve our nation’s preparedness, resilience and response to wildfires. The bill also improves coordination between federal agencies and encourages input from the state, local, and tribal officials who know their communities and how to best protect them.
For weeks, our brave first responders and volunteers have run into the flames so families can safely evacuate and houses could be saved. That’s why I have strongly supported legislation, such as the Wildland Firefighter Fair Pay Act, to ensure compensation for first responders working overtime hours to control these wildfires, which do not burn on a 9-to-5 schedule.
I view all of these recovery and risk reduction efforts as simply playing my part – the natural response I learned from my family during tough times in our lives.
As New Mexico welcomes President Biden today, he will survey the damage and grieve with New Mexicans over lost homes and injured loved ones. And I look forward to discussing with him how the federal government can help New Mexicans fully rebuild, given its role in igniting the largest fire in state history.
While the president will see our communities struggle in the wake of these historic fires, he’ll also witness New Mexicans’ resilience and grit. Just as when COVID-19 hit our state hard, neighbors are helping neighbors and friends are lending hands to friends.
As shown by the President’s Major Disaster Declaration – which I helped secure – and his visit to Northern New Mexico, President Biden does not just join New Mexicans in grief, but also in commitment to recovery. His trip affirms ongoing federal support, following the lead of so many New Mexicans who – when disaster struck – dropped everything and asked, “How can I help?”
We must stay united and strong as we manage the recovery process in the days and months ahead. I stand with my fellow New Mexicans and will continue to do everything in my power as your senator to ensure New Mexico families get back on their feet.