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A year after New Mexico's biggest wildfire, victims have yet to see billions in aid

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Not long after the U.S. Forest Service was found responsible for starting the biggest fire in New Mexico's recorded history, Congress promised billions of dollars in aid. The Hermits Peak Fire destroyed more than 600 homes. But a year later, victims are still waiting on that federal money.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In a forest of blackened skeletons of trees, there's a river flowing where there used to be a road.

CAROL LITHERLAND: There's no way around it.

FORDHAM: We're in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Snowmelt is rushing over the scorched ground from last year's historic fire.

LITHERLAND: (Inaudible).

FORDHAM: It's an unlikely place for an attorney-client meeting, but Carol Litherland is here with her lawyer, both of them with muddy feet, looking over burned buildings.

LITHERLAND: What you see is, you know, the crumpled-up roofing. You see; you know, the...

ANTONIA ROYBAL-MACK: Three to four feet of debris.

LITHERLAND: Yeah, three or four...

FORDHAM: Litherland and her husband have lived on this ranch for more than three decades.

LITHERLAND: We had home births for our children up in the mountains, so lots of memories.

FORDHAM: Almost exactly a year ago, the fire swept furiously hot through their land, destroying the family home, the lodge where they were married.

LITHERLAND: I can still picture it very, very well. And, you know, there's times where, you know, you'll dream at night and you'll think, like, it's still there.

FORDHAM: Since then, she's filled in copious paperwork demanded by her insurance and government agencies, but says she's got little help.

LITHERLAND: It's frustrating not to be any further along than this. I mean, at this point, our house still stands there. The debris has not been removed. It's easy to get discouraged.

FORDHAM: This is where lawyer Antonia Roybal-Mack comes in. She rolls around in a bright blue Jeep with her law firm's logo on the side.

ROYBAL-MACK: People have applied for all of these programs. None of them have come through. All of them need a tremendous amount of paperwork. So it's just fire fatigue at this point.

FORDHAM: Because the fire began as escaped prescribed burns by a federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the federal government took responsibility, and Congress passed a law promising compensation. It appropriated nearly $4 billion. Roybal-Mack says she's been hired by hundreds of households and other entities like municipalities to put a number on their loss. But the claims process is complicated.

ROYBAL-MACK: We can't give our clients any certainty on this is what it is. This is how it looks. This is your path. This is what we expect to see happen.

FORDHAM: That's because the rules aren't finalized. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is running this compensation program. It issued interim regulations last year. But after hundreds of public comments raising concerns about things like a cap of 25% on the value of trees, the agency has no date for a final version.

ROYBAL-MACK: FEMA is saying trust us that we are going to do right by you, but we're not going to give you a rule, and we're not going to have a guidebook as to how we're all going to play this game.

FORDHAM: FEMA says a final rule isn't necessary to start making claims.

PAULA GUTIERREZ: We're encouraging everyone just to submit a claim.

FORDHAM: This is Paula Gutierrez, a local hired by FEMA who will work as an advocate for claimants. The agency is expecting as many as 30,000 claims.

GUTIERREZ: They're going to have the support that they need in order to kind of, you know, get the compensation that they really deserve.

FORDHAM: FEMA will begin processing simpler claims before issuing final rules. The lawyer, Roybal-Mack, is compiling reports from builders, hydrologists and arborists for that claims process. But...

ROYBAL-MACK: In the event we sue the federal government, we will have the evidence necessary to do that.

FORDHAM: She's from the county of Mora, which was hit hard by the fire. Her father's ranch burned. And as we ride around, she says there's some social pressure.

ROYBAL-MACK: If I screw this up, I can't go to church here anymore. And I really like to go to church in Mora.

FORDHAM: On the ranch, Litherland feeds a half-dozen cows.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

FORDHAM: They're planning to sell them.

LITHERLAND: We honestly just need to turn our attention to getting our home rebuilt.

FORDHAM: Later, a caseworker will add notes and photographs from here to her file, one among many piles of paper representing someone's hopes of getting a life back. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham near Rociada, N.M. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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