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Fire victims sue U.S. Forest Service 2 years after huge New Mexico fire

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two years ago, a huge wildfire in New Mexico scorched hundreds of homes and ruined the livelihoods of ranchers and loggers. Now more than 2,000 people are suing the government. From member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The fire in 2022 was the largest in the state's recorded history. Forests where people had grazed cattle and gathered wood for generations became a charred wasteland. Two years on, there are still floods on the burn scars.

CAROL LITHERLAND: We're grateful that we got, you know, the amount of snowfall that we had this last year. There is, of course, the fear of what that's going to mean in terms of flooding when it melts.

FORDHAM: This is Carol Litherland, who took NPR around her burned property last year and is still clearing debris.

LITHERLAND: There's no way that we're going to be back in our house until probably late fall 2025, and that's a long time after this fire.

FORDHAM: She thinks the government should have helped by now. The fire began as escaped prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency. So Congress passed a law promising compensation and assigning FEMA to administer the claims. Nearly $4 billion were appropriated, but Litherland and her neighbors are frustrated with bureaucracy and delays.

LITHERLAND: Every time, you know, we talk, we're always talking about, well, where are you at with FEMA (laughter)? Where are you at, how are things going?

FORDHAM: Now two law firms are suing the federal government in a mass tort case on behalf of 2,434 fire victims, including Litherland, and four public entities. Brian Colon is a partner at the law firm Singleton Schreiber and a former state auditor.

BRIAN COLON: After a year and a half of our clients looking for justice and not finding it, we are left with no other option than to file these claims.

FORDHAM: The administrator of the claims process stepped down in January. A replacement has yet to be appointed. At an event to mark the two-year anniversary on Monday night, FEMA official Colt Hagmaier apologized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLT HAGMAIER: I'm sorry about the fire. I'm sorry about the challenges you faced. I'm sorry that things have taken as long as they have.

FORDHAM: He added the agency has now paid out $470 million but acknowledged that leaves a long way to go. A spokesperson later said people have made claims for things FEMA can't pay for, like attorney fees, but that the agency has processed about 2,500 claims, about a third of all they've received.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Santa Fe.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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