SANTA FE – President Joe Biden increased federal support Saturday for federal relief addressing New Mexico’s catastrophic wildfires and made his first visit to the state since taking office in 2021.
Biden committed the federal government to paying 100 percent of the cost of debris removal and emergency remediation for wildfires that have scorched the state this year, including the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire in northern New Mexico and the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest.
That increases federal support since Biden’s emergency declaration in May, which pledged 75 percent of the funding with New Mexico matching the rest.
“This additional support will help ensure that New Mexico has no financial limitations related to immediate lifesaving and life sustaining operations related to the ongoing wildfires,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency stated Saturday.
Biden touched down at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque at about 1:40 p.m. Saturday afternoon, briefly greeting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and most of New Mexico’s congressional delegation as well as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The governor rode with Biden as the motorcade left for a briefing in Santa Fe where Biden announced the additional support.
He also acknowledged the role the U.S. Forest Service had played in the devastation before meeting with first responders and survivors of the fires.
The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires began in April northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., both as a result of prescribed burns, which the Forest Service has since suspended. The fires merged and have burned more than 300,000 acres.
Biden reportedly flew over the burn scar during Air Force One’s approach to Kirtland.
The Black Fire in the Gila National Forest also continued to burn, having consumed nearly 300,000 acres itself. The wildfires are the two largest in New Mexico history. More than 800,000 acres have burned so far this year.
Meanwhile, crews are doing their best to remove debris and establish channels for water anticipated from New Mexico’s summer monsoon season.
A coalition of indigenous and climate action groups rallied near a Santa Fe metro station on the motorcade’s route, with a gathering organizers said topped 30 before dispersing. Yang Toledo of Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) said the motorcade passed before the group had arranged banners on the Interstate 25 overpass.
“We really wanted to just make it known that these indigenous grassroots organizations in New Mexico are still demanding that Biden take climate action as soon as possible,” she said.
The rapid spread of wildfires and expanded wildfire seasons are exacerbated by increased hot temperatures and drought conditions attributed to climate change wrought by heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Biden has called climate change “the number one issue facing humanity” but has been criticized for encouraging increased oil production and drilling in the midst of rising gas prices and an economic blockade of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Lujan Grisham has set ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions in New Mexico, despite its dependency on the oil and gas industry, but has also been an advocate for developing hydrogen energy, which critics say would likely require consumption of natural gas.
In an interview at the state capitol, Lujan Grisham said Biden had promised to press congress for funds to help rebuild homes lost to the fires and address forests and watersheds.
Meanwhile, the governor warned that more wildfires were still erupting around the state. “We’re going to be pummeled by fires until September or mid-October,” she warned.
She also acknowledged climate change as a factor that inevitably would change New Mexico.
“In the climate situation the world is in, and the southwest and west are in, it’s going to be too hot for pine trees,” she said. “I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. Our soil’s going to change, the landscape’s going to change, and we have to start thinking about what that means.”
In the meantime, she said she was urging more federal resources to help block waterways in the next seven to 20 days to head off floods from blackened lands the president likened to a “moonscape.”
“It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to prevent flooding in every single place that we are working to achieve that result,” she said. “While I hate saying that out loud, it doesn’t make it any less true.”
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.