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FEMA devotes more resources to outstanding claims filed by New Mexico wildfire victims

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that it is devoting more resources to processing outstanding claims filed by victims of the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history.

The 2022 blaze was caused by a pair of prescribed fires that were set by the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to clear out vegetation to reduce the threat of a catastrophic wildfire. Officials have acknowledged that they underestimated the dry conditions that had been plaguing the region for years.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed, thousands of residents were displaced and mountains were charred, leaving behind damage that experts say will have environmental effects for decades to come.

FEMA officials said more employees have been placed on temporary assignment to help with the claims and the agency is prioritizing claims that were submitted some time ago.

The agency has received $518 million in claims with documentation and has approved $330 million in payments so far for people with property, financial and business losses, said John Mills, a spokesperson for the agency.

The federal government set aside nearly $4 billion last year to pay claims related to the wildfire. Lawsuits have been filed by residents who say FEMA has been slow to pay their claims.

The federal agency recently announced that it will be implementing new rules this year aimed at simplifying and speeding up the recovery process for natural disasters nationwide. FEMA officials called it the most comprehensive update to its individual assistance program in two decades.

The changes were the result of feedback from survivors, organizations that work in disaster recovery, and elected officials. New Mexicans have been among those calling for changes in the wake of the wildfire.

The announcement that more employees will be assigned to claims from the Hermit's Peak/Calf Canyon Fire follows a letter sent Monday by members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan pointed to the failure of the claims office to meet a congressionally mandated 180-day deadline for settling each claim.

They said the deadline already has been missed on more than 100 claims and that the office is expected to reach the deadline on many more in the coming weeks.

Members of the delegation said it's important that any new claim reviewers brought on to address the backlog understand their role is not that of insurance adjusters trying to save money but rather to use the resources provided by Congress to satisfy claims.

“The people of northern New Mexico endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of the federal government, which started the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire,” the lawmakers wrote. “We urge you to do everything in your power to expedite the process to compensate claimants.”