Biden arrives in New Mexico with wildfire discussions and costs on the agenda

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Jun. 11—President Joe Biden said Saturday he would support the federal government assuming the full cost of the 320,000-acre Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire, which has devastated a large swath of Northern New Mexico.

But he told New Mexico leaders at the state's emergency operations center in Santa Fe that would require an act from Congress. He noted the biggest hurdle will be getting enough support in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin margin.

But, he said, he will work to get enough support from Republicans to make it happen. He also vowed to have the federal government assist New Mexico in firefighting and long-term recovery.

"We'll do whatever it takes as long as it takes," Biden said.

"I'm thinking about what you're thinking, and that's our responsibility," Biden said. "It's not a gift. We have a responsibility to help this state recover, to help the families, who have been here for centuries, and the beautiful Northern New Mexico villages."

Federal assistance recently approved for Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties covers only 75 percent of fire-damage costs, leaving affected residents to pick up 25 percent.

New Mexico delegates have introduced a bill that, if passed, would allow victims of the fire to be fully compensated.

Until then, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs for combating wildfires and implementing protective measures in New Mexico, the president said.

Biden bemoaned the reports of this year's fires that have displaced people, destroyed hundreds of homes, shuttered schools and made the wilderness "look like a moonscape."

Biden is the first sitting president to visit Santa Fe in two decades.

He met with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, congressional leaders and state and local officials to discuss the fire's devastation and the plight of those who have suffered great loss from the nearly two-month-long inferno that's still burning.

State and local officials have been lobbying Biden to have the federal government pick up the full cost of damage after the U.S. Forest Service acknowledged the fire was formed by two prescribed burns that went awry in the Santa Fe National Forest.

One blew out of control northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., when unexpected gusts kicked up. The other was caused by a sleeper fire lying dormant in debris for months after a pile burn was ignited in January.

Biden said aside from the Forest Service pausing prescribed burns, federal officials are doing a 90-day review of how these so-called controlled fires are conducted to determine if any policy adjustments must be made.

New Mexico, with a Democratic governor and nearly all Democratic congressional delegates, is friendly turf for Biden to make a goodwill stop.

Backing the request to give full relief to fire-impacted residents could prove politically symbiotic for the governor and president in an election year. Lujan Grisham is now locked in a potentially competitive gubernatorial race, and Biden is hoping Democrats will win enough votes to keep control of the House and Senate.

As of June 10, FEMA has approved more than $3 million to help 946 applicants recover from wildfires and windstorms, agency spokeswoman Angela Byrd wrote in an email.

This is a developing story. Check back for details.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.