Santa Fe, N.M. - The federal government is responsible for igniting the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. And President Biden announced during a Saturday visit that FEMA would be covering 100% of the state costs related to recovery efforts.
"We will be here for you in response and recovery for as long as it takes," the president said. Normally, FEMA covers 75% of the cost.
Specifically, Mr. Biden authorized the federal government to cover all of the costs related to "debris removal and emergency protective measures for 90 days undertaken by the State of New Mexico as a result of the wildfires and straight-line winds," according to White House officials.
Still, a bill in Congress could go further to provide assistance to individuals. On Saturday, Mr. Biden said he supports the legislation, but that it might have a hard time getting through the 50-50 Senate.
During his visit, which lasted about five hours, Mr. Biden received a wildfire briefing from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in addition to other state and local officials, but did not tour damaged areas. Instead, Air Force One surveyed fire damage from above en route to Santa Fe. Mr. Biden said the smoke and damage covered "an astounding amount of territory."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service conducted prescribed burns in two rugged areas east of Santa Fe, intending to mitigate the risk of wildfire. But those efforts backfired.
Driven by wind and drought conditions, the fires spread, eventually merging into the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire, which has charred nearly 500 square miles since April. It has forced 18,000 evacuations, and claimed more than 300 homes in some of the poorest areas of the state.
"99.8% of prescribed burns go as planned. These did not," the president said Saturday.
Prior to Mr. Biden's visit, Nora Sackett, press secretary to Lujan Grisham, told CBS News that the governor expected to have "an open and productive conversation with the president about ways the federal government can better serve New Mexicans affected by these fires, especially given the federal government's role in their ignition."
The state's largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, put it bluntly in an editorial, saying "Welcome to N.M., Mr. President; we sure need your help."
Mr. Biden issued a major disaster declaration in early May for five counties impacted by wildfires, and just this week, expanded eligibility for federal relief in three of those counties.
New Mexico's congressional delegation wrote a letter to the president this week that cited the "severity and life and death nature of this crisis" and urged Mr. Biden "to act without delay and approve the State of New Mexico's request for 100 percent coverage of federal assistance."
Lujan Grisham toured damaged areas this week and said she is continuing to "work to secure a commitment from the federal government" to waive the state's 25% cost burden. With his announcement on Saturday, Mr. Biden granted her request.
The state is also battling several other major wildfires.
There are about 4,000 wildfire personnel on the ground fighting these fires and working to protect residents and their property, a White House official told CBS News.
In addition, the Small Business Administration has disaster recovery specialists and public information officers in the field, embedded with FEMA at the Disaster Recovery Centers and Business Recovery Center in Lincoln County, to work with individuals, families, and businesses to apply for low-interest disaster loans that will supplement what federal assistance and insurance do not cover, the official said. The SBA has already awarded nearly $2.6 million in disaster loans.
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