SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Over a year since New Mexico’s largest recorded wildfire sparked in the northern part of the state, federal authorities are touting a newer partnership in their effort to help property owners begin to restore their land. FEMA’s own Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Claims Office now says it’s teaming up with a special program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer free restoration plans for privately owned properties.

The program is being offered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at no cost to landowners. The conservation plans coming out of the program will in essence provide instructions on how property owners should manage or rehabilitate their property.

That includes guiding property owners on how to remove or lay down dead trees and shrubs, how to deal with debris removal, changing roadway access, fencing and soil erosion, along with how to address riverbank damage among other issues. As part of the plan, the NRCS says it will be provide cost estimates for land owners to repair or replace resources burned or flooded as a result of the HPCC wildfire.

The massive wildfire began as two different fires, both of which were started by government-led operations. The Calf Canyon Fire started after a “pile burn holdover from January” 2022 reignited in April. An 85 page report on the controlled burn that sparked the Hermit’s Peak in part indicated that crews opted to ignite a controlled burn under “much drier conditions than were recognized.”

A restoration plan could be an important piece of the puzzle for some northern New Mexico landowners seeking compensation from the government for losses on their property. Property owners seeking compensation from the government are required to file a “Notice of Loss,” which in part asks for general information about property loss and financial values associated with loss.

After the government acknowledges a “notice of loss,” claimants have up to 150 days to provide the government detailed information related to proof of loss, according to FEMA. Once claimants have submitted all of their information and finalized their own claim, FEMA then has 30 days additional days after a claimant’s final submission to come to a determination as to how much money is owed to property owners.

“These NRCS will be built in as part of that timeframe,” said Angela Gladwell, Director of FEMA’s Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Claims Office. “What we’re saying [with the NRCS program] is that there’s no need for a claimant to go out and pay additional out of pocket costs for the plans that the NRCS is [developing].”

The HPCC Claims Office says its expecting to work with around 500 different land owners on NRCS plans. So far, they have three teams of staff “on the ground” working on the program, which was first announced on May 22.

“The way our partnership was designed is so that those plans can be taken, including the pricing that’s being developed as part of them, and submit them through the Claims Office as part of their compensation package for them to receive payment [for losses] from the Claims Office,” said Gladwell. “There is a need to be able to develop cost estimates and documentation for that, to be able to support the claim, and so the real value is this provides the claimants with a means to be able to do that.”

Last June, President Joe Biden acknowledged the federal government’s responsibility for the massive wildfire, saying, “we will be here for you in response and recovery for as long as it takes.” Since then, the federal government has earmarked $3.95-billion for compensation and operations tied to HPCC wildfire recovery.

So far, the federal government has received over 835 notices of loss into the Hermit’s Peak Calf Canyon Claims Office. FEMA officials say the government is continuing to process notices of loss and has begun to make partial payments to some property owners as of the middle of May, including some flood insurance policies, particularly for those with urgent needs or straightforward losses, according to Gladwell.

To read more about the HPCC Claims Office partnership, click this link to read a federal government USDA news release about the NRCS service. The website includes links for how landowners can submit a Notice of Loss to the government, or contact a local HPCC Claims Office in Mora, Las Vegas or Santa Fe.

FEMA officials say HPCC claimants are not required to use the governments new NRCS program. In a news conference call about the program Wednesday, Gladwell said the program is being offered as a “choice,” but said claimants can choose other options, including private companies who can draft restoration plans.