Early season wildfires in New Mexico and across the Southwest are devastating communities and ravaging landscapes. So far this year, the number of acres burned across the United States is approximately 78% above the 10-year average. Much of the West, Plains, and Texas remain in a historic drought with above average temperatures and below normal precipitation, creating the conditions for more large and dangerous wildfires this year. While the National Wildland Fire Preparedness Level remains at Level 2 (of 5), the Southwest Region was elevated to Preparedness Level 4 on April 19th, the earliest date this has ever occurred. New Mexico has been particularly hard hit, with six of the Nation’s ten large wildfires currently burning in the State, consuming more than 250,000 acres. This has created an unprecedented situation in the State, with far reaching impacts on communities, families, and livelihoods.
The Biden Administration is taking prompt action to ensure that all applicable Federal resources are mobilized to help New Mexico communities respond to and recover from these devastating wildfires. The President receives regular briefings on the spread of fires in New Mexico from his Homeland Security Advisor. On Wednesday May 4, he approved a Major Disaster Declaration for Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel, and Valencia Counties in New Mexico to support the State in responding to and recovering from several intense wildfires.
Robust Wildfire Response
The National Interagency Fire Center continues to surge resources to the area to address this early start to the region’s wildfire season, including firefighting crews, aircraft, engines, and incident management teams from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI). These Federal firefighters joined state, local, and Tribal firefighters in New Mexico for a unified and coordinated response growing to nearly 3,000 personnel as of May 9.
FEMA has approved six Fire Management Assistance Grants to support New Mexico this year. These funds will support the State in providing mitigation, management, and control of the fires, as well as provide funding for emergency work, including procuring equipment and supplies for responders, supporting evacuation requirements such as traffic control and sheltering residents, pre-positioning resources to support the response, and establishing field camps and meals for responders.
Throughout the response, the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Los Alamos, New Mexico has been working to ensure the safety and security of facilities and staff and is actively engaged with the surrounding community and response officials. LANL has pre-positioned assets to assist the Los Alamos Fire Department and Federal responders with the protection of key facilities. LANL is also continuing ongoing efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfire through fuels reduction activities. In addition, the Laboratory’s Wildland Fire team has reduced undergrowth and other fuels in the forests around the Lab property for many years and the Lab has prepared to prevent the spread of fire on Lab property.
Support to Communities
The President’s approval of a Major Disaster Declaration on May 4 provides additional Federal funding to help communities recover from the impacts of these fires. This support includes financial assistance for temporary and long-term housing, repairs, and other critical needs for people who have had to evacuate and makes available low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration for businesses and homeowners impacted by the fires. In addition to these types of assistance, Critical Needs Assistance (CNA) has also been approved, which provides a one-time $500 payment per eligible impacted households to cover immediate needs.
FEMA has pre-positioned meals, water, and shelter items for 30,000 people. In addition, the American Red Cross and New Mexico have established shelters for residents who are displaced from their homes. Pre-positioned generators and personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are also on site to support power restoration efforts in coordination with the State. The State of New Mexico is also supporting pet and livestock sheltering needs for families who have been displaced with animals.
A Federal Coordinating Officer and more than 180 FEMA personnel are on the ground and working with the State to identify and address emerging or unmet needs. FEMA’s Incident Management Assistance Team is embedded with the State Emergency Operations Center to assist with coordination of all Federal resources available to the State, and they are continuing to work with the State to conduct joint preliminary damage assessments that will inform recovery planning. FEMA has placed multi-lingual disaster survivor assistance teams in impacted communities and at shelters to work directly with New Mexico residents impacted by the fires to ensure they have access to and are able to register quickly for Federal assistance.
On May 9, 2022, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared a Public Health Emergency for the State of New Mexico, to ensure that those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need during this disaster and as their communities recover. HHS has deployed staff to support State and local health authorities and emergency response officials, and staff from the National Disaster Medical System and U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps are prepared to provide medical care and public health support if needed.
In addition, the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) is available 24/7/365 to provide immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress during this disaster.
Looking ahead, the summer Southwestern monsoon season and associated heavy rains can cause substantial watershed impacts from burned areas. These events can result in significant soil erosion, flooding, and debris flows and impact both natural resources and communities. Federal agencies are working with the State and local communities to anticipate and prepare for potential flooding and to support post-fire mitigation activities. The USFS has established a statewide post-fire response and recovery team with New Mexico, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Farm Bureau, and other Federal interagency partners to coordinate efforts and access to funding for environmental response, stabilization, and recovery.
DOI and USFS interagency Burned Area Emergency Response teams have already been assigned to the New Mexico Fires. Teams are composed of resource specialists who determine the need for, prescribe, and can implement emergency treatments to minimize threats to life or property or prevent further damage to natural and cultural resources on Federal land. Assessments completed by these teams will support development of post fire recovery plans and actions in coordination with the State.
The USDA has made resources available to support farmers and ranchers whose land, crops, or livestock have been damaged or lost as a result of wildfires. These programs include the Livestock Indemnity Program; Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish; Forage Disaster Program; and the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. USDA also provides low-interest loans to help farmers and ranchers recover from production and physical losses and reestablish their operations. Local USDA staff at county service centers near the declared counties are available to assist farmers and ranchers with accessing this assistance.
USDA also has programs to support mitigation and recovery, including an Environmental Quality Incentives Program to assist with immediate needs and long-term support to help recover from natural disasters and conserve water resources, an Emergency Conservation Program to rehabilitate farmlands damaged by disaster, and an Emergency Forest Restoration Program to restore private forestlands. USDA’s Emergency Watershed Protection Program can also help relieve imminent threats to life and property caused by fire that impairs a watershed.
The Biden Administration will continue to work hard to ensure that the Federal government does everything it can to provide support to New Mexicans who need help as a result of these early and extremely damaging wildfires.
Information on assistance and resources available to people in New Mexico can be accessed at DisasterAssistance.gov.