Sincere thanks for meeting with the UNM law clinic students and faculty on Saturday, June 25, as we evaluate how to provide legal assistance to victims of the recent fires in northern New Mexico. Through sharing your time and concerns, we now have better ideas for how we may be able to provide assistance going forward.
As we indicated during our visit, free legal assistance is available to any fire victims by calling the legal hotline number: 1-888-985-5141. For hotline hours of operation and other details, see the flyer attached. Free, in-person legal assistance will also be offered at Highlands University on Saturday, July 23, with suggested services and details provided in the other attached flyer. Please note that the deadline for applying for FEMA disaster assistance has recently been extended from July 5 to August 4.
Finally, following up on specific concerns we heard from you during our visit, we offer the notes below. Please feel free to forward or otherwise share these notes with any other interested community members.
Debris clearance: Fire victims who lost their homes in the fire may be eligible for free removal of fire debris by the U.S. EPA and Corps of Engineers under the Full-Service Debris Removal Program. Alternatively, fire victims may remove debris at their own expense through the Opt-Out Debris Removal Program. The Full-Service Debris Removal Program requires participants to review and sign a Right-of-Entry (ROE) permit. As of July 5, EPA had received a total of 144 ROEs in Mora and San Miguel counties. (See attached “Debris removal update – July 5”). The Opt Out program requires property owners to pay all expenses for removal, without reimbursement, and meet the same cleanup standards as the Full-Service program. For details on both programs, see the information and forms available at this link or contact the legal hotline if you have any related questions.
Behavioral health: The federal government maintains a Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, staffed 24/7, 365 days a year, to provide immediate crisis counseling for people experiencing emotional distress related to any major disaster. The New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Dept. (CYFD) also has a website providing extensive links to support for children, families, responders, and others struggling to recover from the New Mexico fires.
Lost food: Unfortunately, it appears clear that “Food loss is not covered” by FEMA. See link here to FEMA FAQs. Food needs may be supported by other government programs, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and local food banks including the Food Depot (based in Santa Fe, with a mobile food pantry); Saint Gertrude’s Parish Food Pantry (located in Mora); and El Rito Presbyterian Church (located in Chacon).
Proof of property ownership: Historically, applicants for FEMA’s Individual Assistance to rebuild damaged or destroyed homes were required to provide certain forms of proof of property ownership. In 2021, however, FEMA changed its historic policy, recognizing that diverse communities may own property as a result of inheritance or other transactions without traditional forms of documentation. This change in policy may help victims of the New Mexico fires establish ownership for purposes of FEMA assistance, allowing alternate forms of proof including sworn statements. For further information, see this link to the FEMA website or contact the legal hotline.
Private well water: According to the New Mexico Environment Dept. (NMED), as of June 3, many local municipal water systems had been evaluated and determined safe for drinking, cooking, and bathing. These include systems in Mora, Cleveland, Holman, and Ledoux. See NMED notice here. Private well systems may qualify for free analysis if homeowners collect their own samples, according to protocols, and bring the samples to designated NMED field offices. NMED also held a “water fair” in Mora on June 4 (see notice here) to provide more immediate and expansive domestic water testing. If we hear of any future water fairs for this purpose in the local area, we will let you know. Finally, at their own expense, homeowners with urgent concerns for their water quality may take their own samples for analysis at a private laboratory. For a list of private labs certified by the State of New Mexico, see this link.
Damage to well-houses: In our meeting on June 25, we heard a specific concern that FEMA may provide assistance for repairing residential homes but not assistance for repairing well-houses providing domestic water to those homes. Based upon FEMA’s practice with prior disasters, we believe that FEMA should respond to the NM fires this year by providing assistance for assessing private wells and for repairing or replacing damaged wells that are not covered by homeowner’s insurance. This link announces FEMA assistance last year for damaged wells (and septic systems) following wildfires in Oregon. This link confirms such assistance to homeowners after winter storms in Texas last year. This link documents such assistance to homeowners in Pennsylvania impacted by Hurricane Ida last year. If homeowners impacted by the NM fires are denied assistance for repairing damaged well houses, we encourage such parties to read the FEMA denial letter carefully, contact the legal hotline, and consider appealing the FEMA denial.
Unemployment benefits: The Presidential disaster declaration authorized funding for Disaster Unemployment Assistance. See announcement here. As indicated in the announcement, the deadline to apply for this unemployment assistance passed on June 15. Individuals who applied by the deadline may be entitled to FEMA assistance through November 5. Individuals who did not meet the June 15 deadline may still apply for unemployment assistance through the New Mexico Dept. of Workforce Solutions by following instructions at this link.
Thank you for the opportunity to help serve communities of northern New Mexico in this difficult time. If you or other community members have any other legal questions concerning impacts from the NM fires and availability of assistance, please call the legal hotline above or call the UNM Clinical Law Program main line at 1-505-277-5265 and ask for our assistance.
Prof. Cliff Villa
On behalf of the University of New Mexico Clinical Law Program