Biden pledges more aid to New Mexico to help fight the state's massive wildfire
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After a trip to Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas, President Biden made a stop in New Mexico. The visit gave him a chance to see some of the devastation from the largest ever wildfire in that state and talk to firefighters, FEMA workers and people who live nearby. Reporter Alice Fordham is with member station KUNM, and she joins us this morning from Santa Fe. Good morning, Alice.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Put these fires into perspective for us, if you could. How does this compare to other fire seasons in New Mexico?
FORDHAM: Sure. Well, wildland fires are part of life here, but the state has never in recorded history seen anything like this fire season. There are several all over the state. I sometimes wake up and there's smoke in my house. The president was briefed Saturday that more than 1% of the state has seen fire damage this year. And that largest one that the president saw out of the window of Air Force One is 500-square miles. It's still only about 70% contained.
MARTIN: Wow. So just give us a sense of the damage that it's done.
FORDHAM: So the landscape has changed for generations to come. It's burned swaths of national forest, and they're used not just for recreation and conservation but for livelihoods. So I've been spending time in small towns in northern New Mexico where people have been loggers. They have grazed cattle on high ground for many, many generations. And their livelihood, their way of life, has been changed forever by this fire. And this is partly because of forests that are dry because of drought and hot, arid weather due to climate change. But there's also a huge amount of anger here toward the Forest Service because this fire started as two planned burns which got out of control.
MARTIN: So what did President Biden, on this visit, what did he see? What did he learn specifically?
FORDHAM: Well, he met firefighters and first responders. He praised them. He was told that more than a thousand homes have burned. And he was told about the risk of flooding when rain comes to these charred, burned mountainsides. But a big part of the question New Mexicans have for the federal government is whether it's going to pay for all the costs of the fire because it started as planned burns by a federal agency. And Biden did announce some boosts in funding.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, I'm announcing the federal government is covering 100% of the cost...
BIDEN: ...Of debris removal and emergency protective measures for the next critical months of - in this recovery.
FORDHAM: And in addition to that promise to pay for debris removal, emergency protection for a while, he also promised $22 million for flood mitigation. But for the federal government to pay for everything, it's a matter for Congress to decide. Biden says he supports it, but whether it passes remains to be seen.
MARTIN: OK. So a federal agency is responsible for these planned burns that started the fire. And Biden wants to help pay for that. But, I mean, what about the policy itself? Did the president mention a change in Forest Service policy about these planned burns?
FORDHAM: Yeah. And this is really important to people here. Planned burns were suspended nationwide last month for a 90-day review. Biden said he would brief the country on the results of that review where - but he did point out that something like 99.8% of thousands of planned burns every year do go as planned. But there's no doubt there's a very difficult dilemma here. Planned burns are meant to clear up vegetation, make big fires less likely. I've spoken to Forest Service people, ecologists who say that with drier conditions that we see every day, planned burns are essential to manage forests. But some do say that with changed weather, it can be harder to predict what a planned burn might do.
I will say that people here in New Mexico often say the Forest Service restricted where they could do logging and grazing. If they'd been allowed to work with the forest, as they have for hundreds of years, it wouldn't be so dense. The fire wouldn't be so intense. So I think in the wake of this devastation, we're likely to see some reconsideration of policy.
MARTIN: Alice Fordham of member station KUNM, thank you.
FORDHAM: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.