Series: The Long Burn:The Slow Recovery From New Mexico’s Largest Wildfire
The federal government accidentally set the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire. Disaster aid has been hard to get and slow to arrive, and residents face a long journey to rebuild.
The director of a federal office overseeing a nearly $4 billion compensation fund for victims of a New Mexico wildfire that was accidentally triggered by the U.S. Forest Service is stepping down.
Angela Gladwell’s reassignment comes as the Federal Emergency Management Agency restructures its disaster response in the state amid sustained criticism of its handling of disaster aid and payments for damages, which Source New Mexico and ProPublica have reported on for the past year.
The largest wildfire in state history, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire destroyed at least 430 homes and cost billions of dollars in firefighting services and damage. About 29,000 claimants, including residents, businesses and nonprofit organizations, could be eligible for payments, FEMA has said.
Many residents have been in limbo as they await checks to rebuild. The agency’s claims office didn’t make its first payment to a victim until April, seven months after the office was created. By midsummer, more than a year after the fire had ripped through the mountains of northern New Mexico, the claims office had paid less than 1% of the total allocated. It has now paid $311 million, about 8% of the total approved by Congress. Several lawsuits allege the claims office has missed payment deadlines.
FEMA also faces two lawsuits over its decision not to pay for intangible losses, like the stress of fleeing the fire and being displaced from home for weeks or months. FEMA has declined to respond to questions about its decision, citing the litigation.
Gladwell, a longtime FEMA official and the face of the recovery effort, has frequently faced angry questions at town hall meetings about these problems. In recent weeks, a coalition of fire victims and local elected officials has called for her to be replaced as head of the claims office.
In a news release announcing Gladwell’s departure, claims office spokesperson Deborah Martinez said she “successfully built a compensation program from the ground, assembling a team of locally hired staff with knowledge of New Mexico and the communities affected by the wildfires.”
Now, she said, Gladwell will “transition to a new role” as FEMA consolidates recovery programs in New Mexico, including the claims office, into a single operation.
Martinez did not answer questions about what that consolidation entails, except to say in an email that the office is “in the beginning stages” of the change.
In a statement posted to LinkedIn, Gladwell reflected on her “last day in New Mexico with an extraordinary team who is delivering on an extremely challenging mission.” She said she was “grateful for what we have learned that will continue to inform approaches to disaster recovery in the future, especially for wildfires and rural communities.”
Jennifer Carbajal, deputy director of the claims office and a resident of the area, spoke at a packed town hall meeting Wednesday night in Las Vegas, New Mexico. She said the agency had acted as quickly as it could to hire staff, open offices and establish procedures. The consolidation decision, which was “brand new,” will combine the claims office with FEMA’s short-term disaster aid programs, she said.
FEMA will soon hire a chief operating officer to lead “on-the-ground long-term” recovery efforts as the office focuses on making payments, Martinez said in the news release.
The office will soon publish a guide outlining the types of claims that are being paid and what documentation is needed, Martinez said. The agency recently acknowledged that the paperwork burden is too high for some claimants. It’s common among multigenerational families with long roots in the area not to have clear titles to their land or other documentation proving ownership.
The Coalition for Fire Fund Fairness, a group that includes local elected officials, and attorneys for thousands of victims have called for Gladwell to be replaced by someone who they said better understands New Mexico’s culture and laws, like a former judge. The group’s founder, Manny Crespín Jr., called FEMA’s announcement “welcomed news” and asked that the new leader not be “another FEMA bureaucrat.”
The federal law creating the claims office allows FEMA to appoint an independent administrator to oversee it. Instead, the office brought in Gladwell, a FEMA employee for more than 25 years in Washington, D.C. Martinez did not respond to a question about how FEMA will select the chief operating officer, including whether they will be from New Mexico or will be hired from within the claims office.
U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, said in a written statement that they hope the changes will speed up claims payments. Recently, the community of Las Vegas mourned a former police chief who died while awaiting a check to rebuild his home in Rociada, one of the hardest-hit areas.
The claims office faces several lawsuits accusing it of missing legally required deadlines to make payment offers and pushing victims to abandon their attorneys. FEMA has denied it puts such pressure on victims. It said it discovered a flaw in its reporting system that allowed some cases to languish, and it was addressing the issue.
Antonia Roybal-Mack, a local lawyer representing hundreds of clients, credited ongoing advocacy by lawyers and residents, and reporting by Source New Mexico and ProPublica, in bringing about the change. She said she’ll watch closely to see who takes over the new office.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “People in northern New Mexico — we need to now ask them to put a New Mexican in that position.”