Federal officials say the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire has destroyed 400 homes and threatened 15,000 more, and the fires are still burning with more than 300,000 acres burned. In the face of these staggering numbers, FEMA says misconceptions about eligibility and insurance might be stopping people from getting help.
“It is a fact of life in the west — the wildfires are an issue,” says Russell Toal, State Superintendent of Insurance.
Those in the path of the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire have been living that reality for almost two months. Both of these fires were started by the federal government and there are millions in relief for people for things like destroyed property, burnt land, and reimbursement for hotel stays.
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“As of now, FEMA has approved 2.3 million dollars and that’s straight towards helping New Mexicans,” says Dasha Castillo, spokesperson for FEMA. An amount which, you might think, would be quickly claimed.
More than 27,000 people have been evacuated in some form, but the applications for assistance don’t reflect that. “Up to this point, we have 790 applicants,” Castillo says, “It’s a very small amount, and for this reason we really encourage folks to apply for assistance with FEMA or SBA.”
Castillo says there may be a couple of barriers people are facing to get help—like simply not knowing they can get money for rental assistance, lodging expenses while displaced, and money for home repairs.
“New Mexico has not had a declaration since 2008. So it’s pretty new for people to learn about or already know about FEMA assistance,” Castillo says. Other hurdles may include not having a social security number: “We’re not here to process anyone, we’re here to offer assistance,” Castillo says. Not having insurance won’t stop you from getting assistance, either. “It would probably be quicker, because if you don’t have insurance then you can just go straight to FEMA,” Castillo says.
The State Superintendent of Insurance says they plan to ask for a data call from insurers in the next month to figure out how many homeowners do not have insurance or are under-insured in the area. However, in northern New Mexico where many of the homes have been passed down through the generations: “It’s highly unlikely those homes were insured. The same thing is true of ranch and farm-related dwellings,” Toal says. He says the results of the data call aren’t expected until the end of July.
Toal says in New Mexico, 18-20% of the homes are considered ‘high risk’ for wildfires—which he says is high among the western states.
On top of FEMA disaster assistance, the superintendent says the state also has a program of last resort for uninsured people called the FAIR Program.
For more information about FEMA Disaster Assistance, visit their website here or call 1(800) 621-3362.