July 17—Residents of the village of Pendaries plan to sue the federal government for starting the blaze that raged through their bucolic community, burning homes, the center of development, and the area’s scenic beauty.
The owners and managers of Pendaries want the federal government to pay for all the losses they suffered from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire – the losses, they say, go beyond homes and burned structures, as well as badly damaged water and electricity systems.
Fifty-one houses were destroyed and dozens more were damaged. The fire also consumed a clubhouse, restaurant, community center and offices, which alone totaled $2.5 million to $4 million in losses.
The fire also scorched hillsides — leaving slopes vulnerable to erosion, flash flooding and ashy debris flows — and marred the pastoral setting that drew many people to this San Miguel County hamlet.
Although federal leaders, including President Joe Biden, have pledged the government will pay the bulk of the state’s fire recovery costs, and New Mexico congressional delegates are sponsoring a bill that would create a funds to cover property losses, lawsuit spearheads say they can’t sit back and wait.
“We’ve seen enough to know that we probably have to be our own advocates in this situation and not wait for some congressional bill to come along and somehow save us,” Brian Hendrix said. , owner and part-time. Resident hangers. “We think we’re going to have to go to court and prove our case.”
In developments like Pendaries and small villages from Las Vegas to Chacon, such concerns are not uncommon in the fire zone, which spans more than 600 square miles and encompasses large swathes of Mora and San counties. Miguel. For many, the process of becoming whole again has only just begun.
The beginnings of the fire are now well known: in early April, a prescribed burn exploded, causing the Hermits Peak fire. Two weeks later, it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, which had been smoldering underground since burning a pile in January, producing the largest blaze in New Mexico history. Hell tore through the village of Pendaries and nearby Rociada and, in the months that followed, many other towns.
Hendrix said his home in Pendaries was spared, while neighbors around him lost their homes. But he is still affected, he says.
The scorched landscape will reduce his property value partly because of the increased threat of flooding, but also because what was once beautiful is now unsightly, Hendrix said. The loss of aesthetics that gave the area its character is an intangible asset that a congressional fund is unlikely to compensate for, he added.
“What has been destroyed is our way of life and the environment that we value,” Hendrix said. “The reason we’re in Pendaries is because we’re adjacent to these beautiful forests, we have these beautiful views.”
Hendrix, a litigation consultant, said he encourages Pendaries officials to pursue litigation and hire the best attorneys for such cases. He estimates that several dozen residents have so far expressed interest in suing.
One of the attorneys, Roger Marzulla, based in Washington, D.C., said he plans to file a lawsuit this week in the U.S. Federal Court of Claims, which argues the government must pay Pendaries residents for having “taken” their properties.
Despite their statements, the federal government is unlikely to fully compensate residents without a court order, Marzulla said.
“If the feds actually give people everything they’re entitled to, I’ll be the first to stand up and applaud,” Marzulla said. “That was never our experience.”
Biden’s recent executive order directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove debris, such as downed trees from burned properties, but does not address destroyed structures.
New Mexico congressional delegates introduced a bill that, if passed, would require FEMA to establish a program to fully compensate those who suffered personal injury, property damage, business loss and financial impact of the fire.
FEMA’s current grant program allows New Mexicans to apply for disaster relief, but it typically covers only a portion of losses.
Marzulla said residents deserve more than partial payments. Nor should they have to wait for a bill that could stall indefinitely, he said.
“What we would insist on is full and fair compensation,” Marzulla said.
Hendrix said the problem with congressional funds is that they can have narrow guidelines on who is eligible for the money and how much.
A government fund set up to compensate victims of the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 paid people whose homes were burned, Hendrix said. Beyond that, it didn’t cover business losses and only paid people whose content could prove damaged or destroyed, he said.
In addition to destroying homes, the Hermits Peak fire has made the community less livable for people whose homes are intact, said Paul Aragon, executive director of Pendaries Village.
Three-quarters of an inch of rain in an hour last week caused strong runoff cascading down scorched slopes, damaging the golf course and flooding some properties at the base of the hills, Aragon said.
A large hillside arroyo that normally drains stormwater from homes is clogged with debris, causing runoff to flow in different directions, he said.
The blaze came just as Pendaries Village, a community of around 250 homes with its own water and power systems, was on the verge of breaking even for the first time in at least 20 years, Aragon said. Sixteen homes have been built recently and no homes were for sale – unlike five years ago when 87 homes were on the market, he said.
The fire destroyed much of the homes and compromised the village’s ability to grow, he said.
“This community was meant to thrive until this fire hit us,” Aragon said. “Somehow the government has to take responsibility for this so that we can survive for the next 50 years.”
Hendrix said the devastation will be carefully assessed and a dollar figure will be placed on it. But whatever damages the Feds might pay, the recovery will be long and the Pendaries will bear the scars of the fire for a long time.
“It’s such a wonderful place, and I’m sure it will be one more day,” Hendrix said. “But it may not be in my lifetime that everything will return to what it was.”