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Record-Setting Blazes Are Growing More Common. Here’s What Survivors of One Want You to Know – Byard Duncan, ProPublica, and Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

Record-Setting Blazes Are Growing More Common. Here’s What Survivors of One Want You to Know.

by Byard Duncan, ProPublica, and Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico, photography by Adria Malcolm for ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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.

Survivors of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire have lessons for the rest of the country.

These residents, whose property and livelihoods were destroyed by a wildfire accidentally triggered by the U.S. government in 2022, have become reluctant students of forest management and evacuation, disaster aid and bureaucracy, trauma and resiliency.

The potential audience for these lessons is growing. The number of Americans in the continental U.S. directly exposed to wildfires more than doubled between 2000 and 2019. Record-setting blazes have become common in the West, where risks have reached “crisis proportions,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.

One way the Forest Service limits wildfire damage is by burning off acres of brush and other vegetation that can fuel a megafire. It plans to thin or burn 50 million additional acres in the next decade or so — up to a fourfold increase from recent years in parts of the West.

But these fires come with their own hazards. Roughly six of them escape and risk becoming wildfires each year, according to the Forest Service. Prescribed burns in New Mexico triggered two major blazes in 2022, including the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the largest in state history. That led Congress, for the second time in 23 years, to pass a law to compensate victims of a wildfire triggered by the federal government. Both occurred in New Mexico.

Over the past year, Source New Mexico and ProPublica have interviewed dozens of survivors of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. We found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided little temporary housing to victims and has so far paid a small fraction of a roughly $4 billion fund to make the community whole and restore the landscape. Some victims say that unless FEMA pays for intangible losses like the stress of being displaced from home and the lost enjoyment of their land, they won’t be able to recover. Many residents described an uneasy state of limbo: forced off their property, out of work, unable to rebuild.

“With climate collapse, this scenario is set to repeat itself over and over across the country,” Cyn Palmer, a retired wildlife manager whose home was damaged by the wildfire, said in an email. “FEMA and the government has an opportunity here to learn how to respond differently, and better than previously. I hope they do.”

FEMA has maintained that it is moving as fast as it can to do a job that’s substantially different from its typical duty of providing short-term disaster aid. The agency opened field offices, hired staff and generated policies within eight months. As of Feb. 14, it has paid $391 million to individuals, government bodies and nonprofits. Although that’s just 10% of the $3.95 billion allocated by Congress, it’s 69% of the $565 million in claims that have all documentation and are being reviewed or have been, according to FEMA spokesperson John Mills.

“FEMA is committed to speeding up the claims process and maximizing payments to people affected by the fire,” Mills wrote in a statement to Source and ProPublica. “We are committed to working with people one-on-one to help with their specific needs.” The agency, he wrote, regularly holds town hall meetings and has provided residents with a list of the types of documents they can use to show what they lost in the fire.

As survivors navigate the recovery process, we asked about 30 of them what they would want the rest of the country to know, and see, about their experiences.

This is what they told us.

First you’ll lose things. Then you’ll need to prove that you lost them.

Some families who lost homes trace their roots in the area back hundreds of years. Many properties had been passed down without transferring deeds, making it difficult to prove ownership when seeking government aid and payment for losses.

You may get government help; you may not. Either way, it will take a toll.

Residents who fought for disaster aid and are now waiting for checks to rebuild described the logistical hurdles and emotional cost.

You’ll lean on friends and family. But those relationships will be tested.

People sprang into action to help one another. Over time, though, the stress has eroded marriages and driven some into isolation.

Accountability needs to be part of fire prevention.

The officials responsible for one of the prescribed burns that triggered the wildfire underestimated the danger of dry, windy conditions and didn’t have enough backup staff on-site, according to a review by the Forest Service. Survivors aren’t satisfied with the answers they’ve gotten about how that happened. A spokesperson for the Forest Service said the wildfire prompted the agency to examine how to do its work safely and that no single person was responsible for the fire.

Recovery — to the extent there is one — will take a lot longer than people say.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are finally flowing into these communities, but residents face years of rebuilding homes, flood-proofing properties and repairing roads. It will take decades for trees to cover the mountains again.