NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Many New Mexicans are still trying to rebuild after the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which was the largest wildfire in the state’s history. But some say the federal government, which is responsible for the fire, needs to do more to help victims recover. Now, they’re taking the feds to court.
In September 2022, Congress and the president approved $3.95 billion for compensation to people impacted by the fire, which started as two federally prescribed burns. In a video FEMA sent KRQE, they shared victims’ stories while touting their compensation package. Victims also give testimonials on how the aid is helping them rebuild.
“Now they can start replacing the fencing. They can start addressing the erosion that’s causing these ponds to silt in. They get cows back out here. That’s what they do for a living,” said FEMA Claims’ Office Associate Advocate John Cyle Sharp in FEMA’s video.
However, some victims said that is not enough. Now, they are taking FEMA to court in a federal lawsuit.
“The people who have been injured by the negligence of the federal government deserve full compensation,” said Brian Colón, who is representing some of the plaintiffs.
In the lawsuit, they claimed FEMA is only offering compensation for property and structural damage and not for noneconomic damage like the emotional toll victims experienced. The lawsuit particularly cites damages like “interference with personal comfort, annoyance, and inconvenience.”
“At this point, we’re saying, ‘Enough’s enough.’ They have not distributed the funds to the people who’ve been damaged, and they’re not recognizing the full damages of those folks,” said Colón. “Under the law that was passed by Congress, they said they were supposed to compensate victims under New Mexico law. New Mexico law provides for those folks to be compensated for their inconvenience and for what they’ve been through, for the trauma they’ve suffered, as a result of the federal government’s negligence.”
He said he’s confident a federal judge will agree. “New Mexico law is clear. These victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire deserve to be compensated fully. We’re going to work every day until that happens,” said Colón.
There is no timeline for when the case could go in front of a federal judge. In an emailed statement, FEMA said it does not comment on pending litigation, but it did send over claimant testimonial videos.
To date, FEMA has distributed $95 million of the $3.95 billion funds. It is also hiring more staff for the claimant office.