US president said the federal government would cover the full cost of the emergency response and debris removal, a responsibility that was previously shared with the state government.
President Joe Biden has said he was escalating federal assistance for New Mexico as it faces its largest wildfire in recorded state history.
The fire began with prescribed burns that were set by the US Forest Service, a standard practice that’s intended to clear out combustible underbrush.
However, the burns spread out of control, destroying hundreds of homes across 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) since early April, according to federal officials.
“We need to be sure this doesn’t happen again,” Biden said during a visit to an emergency operations center in Santa Fe, where he met with local, state and federal officials. He was returning to Washington from Los Angeles, where he had attended the Summit of the Americas.
The president said the federal government would cover the full cost of the emergency response and debris removal, a responsibility that was previously shared with the state government.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told Biden that “your administration has leaned in from the very beginning” and that “we need the federal government to keep accepting responsibility.”
Biden said he also supports having Washington foot the bill for damages caused by the fire, but such a step would require congressional action.
US firefighters in New Mexico battle second-largest wildfire in the state's history pic.twitter.com/oPSDc9cGWP— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) May 8, 2022
'Code red’ for US
Evidence of New Mexico’s struggle with wildfire was visible from Air Force One as the president’s plane approached. There were plumes of smoke in the distance, and rows of burned trees looked like blackened scars slashing through green forests.
Evacuations have displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage.
Fear of flames is giving way to concern about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fire penetrated soil and roots.
The blaze is the latest reminder of Biden’s concern about wildfires, which are expected to worsen as climate change continues, and how they will strain resources needed to fight them.
“These fires are blinking ‘code red’ for our nation,” Biden said last year after stops in Idaho and California. “They’re gaining frequency and ferocity.”
But the source of the current wildfire in New Mexico has also sparked outrage here.
A group of Mora County residents sued the US Forest Service this past week in an effort to obtain more information about the government’s role.
The Forest Service sets roughly 4,500 prescribed burns each year nationwide, and Biden said the practice has been put on hold during an investigation.