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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden pledges aid for fire started by U.S. government

U.S. President Joe Biden takes part in a discussion of New Mexico wildfires on Saturday at the State Emergency Operations Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico.  (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Josh Wingrove Bloomberg News

The U.S. will cover all emergency response costs for a massive New Mexico fire, President Joe Biden said, while warning that the Senate may block a bill compensating the state for a blaze the federal government started.

Biden surveyed fire damage from Air Force One before arriving Saturday in New Mexico to meet Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and emergency officials for an update on the blaze, which was set off by a prescribed burn conducted by the National Forest Service.

“It’s an astounding amount of territory, and the impacts on families that have been there for so long are so consequential,” Biden said in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “We have a responsibility to help the state recover, to help the families who have been here for centuries.”

The Hermits Peak fire started on April 6 as a controlled burn by the forest service; the Calf Canyon fire started April 19, stemming from a controlled burn three months earlier that had been dormant. The two have since merged into the biggest wildfire in the history of the state and burned over 300,000 acres, the governor said.

Thousands of people have been evacuated and 1,200 homes were burned, along with businesses and ranches lost, Lujan Grisham said.

“All of that just went up in smoke,” Lujan Grisham said. “It’s the duty of the federal government and the state to do right by the people of New Mexico.” The state is in the grip of a prolonged drought, raising the fire risk and diverting already strained water resources to douse flames.

Biden said the federal government would cover all response costs associated with the fire. He said he supports a bill to reimburse people for losses, while adding: “We’re going to have a little more trouble in the United States Senate.”

The U.S. is poised for a devastating fire season, with drought throughout the West and Southwest. The National Interagency Fire Center is forecasting above-average fire risk throughout this summer in much of the country.

Biden has repeatedly expressed concern about wildfires and other natural disasters as a sign that climate change is worsening, and about the strain on federal resources to help communities battle storms and fires as well as rebuild.

Biden met with officials from New Mexico and the Federal Emergency Management Agency after flying in from Los Angeles, where hosted the Summit of the Americas. He’s due to fly to his home state of Delaware later Saturday.