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New Mexicans are applying for special federal fire recovery funds

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Victims of this year's huge wildfire in New Mexico are starting to get details about the $2.5 billion in special funding that Congress has allocated for them. The fire was caused by U.S. Forest Service controlled burns that escaped. Local officials say it destroyed at least 500 homes. From member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports there's hope and trepidation about the money.

(CROSSTALK)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In Mora County - population about 4,000 - everyone's been touched by the fire - the biggest in New Mexico's recorded history. About 200 people crammed into a community meeting called by their congresswoman, Teresa Leger Fernandez.

TERESA LEGER FERNANDEZ: And I need to tell you, there was nobody in Congress who I didn't pull aside and tell what had happened here.

FORDHAM: For six months, she campaigned for legislation to compensate people.

LEGER FERNANDEZ: It was your grief. It was your hardship that I took and I shared with them. And I know it's really hard and it hasn't ended, and it's not going to end for years and years.

FORDHAM: The law is loosely modeled on what happened after a planned burn got out of control in Los Alamos, N.M., in 2000. FEMA managed the process then, and most claims were handled within about two years. Here, the area is more rural, and claims could be more complicated. Many complain about FEMA's initial response.

GERARD STOLAR: And all of you are very frustrated, had been very frustrated.

FORDHAM: Gerard Stolar is here with a team from the agency. He says over 4,000 households applied for help. About 1,300 have received money.

STOLAR: I would just ask you to be patient and continue to be persistent because some significant help is on the way.

FORDHAM: People don't have much choice. But that doesn't mean they're optimistic. Doreen Sandoval keeps asking for help with her flooded home and road.

DOREEN SANDOVAL: Oh, they just don't listen. They just deny me every time I go.

FORDHAM: So far, FEMA officials and local people say a big challenge has been that people in this rural area don't always have conventional documentation. Local lawyer Antonia Roybal-Mack is trying to help.

ANTONIA ROYBAL-MACK: I think there's a lot of limitations within FEMA. There is no trust. And when you're saying trust me to do the right thing even though I have not done the right thing till this point - is a really difficult pill to swallow.

FORDHAM: She wants the agency to hire locals who understand issues like loss of firewood, hunting permits or wells. For now, FEMA has until mid-November to come up with draft regulations. Then there will be a public comment period. The earliest people might be able to apply for the new funding is around the new year. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Mora, N.M. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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