Angela Gladwell, the head of the federal office that handles the claims of victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, has announced her resignation. The move comes after months of complaints and lawsuits over the slow and inadequate response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the disaster.
The Fire and Its Aftermath
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire was the result of two prescribed burns set by the U.S. Forest Service in January and April 2022 in northern New Mexico. The fires merged and burned about 341,000 acres (532 square miles) in the mountains east of Santa Fe, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of residents in rural villages throughout the area. It was the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history.
The federal government set aside nearly $4 billion in 2022 to pay claims related to the wildfire. FEMA was responsible for administering the compensation program, which was created by the Fire Assistance Act. The act authorized FEMA to pay for tangible and intangible losses, such as property damage, personal injury, and emotional distress.
The Claims Office and Its Problems
Angela Gladwell, a longtime FEMA official, was appointed to lead the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Claims Office in late 2022. She had the task of building a compensation program from scratch, assembling a team of locally hired staff with knowledge of New Mexico and the communities affected by the wildfires.
However, the claims office soon faced criticism for its delays and decisions. The office did not pay its first claim until April 2023, and by midsummer it had paid less than 1% of its allocation. The pace has picked up since, but many residents were still in limbo as they awaited checks to rebuild.
FEMA also faced two lawsuits over its decision not to pay for intangible losses, even though the state Attorney General maintained it should. And it faced other lawsuits claiming it had missed payment deadlines. The plaintiffs alleged that FEMA had misrepresented claim deadlines and had failed to process claims within a required 180-day time frame.
The Resignation and the Restructuring
On Wednesday morning, claims office spokesperson Deborah Martinez said FEMA was launching a new effort to consolidate recovery programs in New Mexico into a single operation, including the claims office, and that Gladwell would “transition to a new role” within FEMA as part of that change.
Martinez did not provide details on what exactly that consolidation means or how long Gladwell’s departure has been in the works, except to say that the office “is in the beginning stages” of the change and that more information would be forthcoming.
Gladwell and other claims office officials had never mentioned a plan to consolidate federal disaster recovery operations here in numerous public meetings since the office was created.
Martinez praised Gladwell for her work, saying she “successfully built a compensation program from the ground” and thanked her for her “dedication and service”.
The announcement of Gladwell’s resignation came amid increased calls from advocates and local elected officials for her to be replaced. They said she had failed to address the needs and concerns of the fire victims and had shown a lack of transparency and accountability.
The Reaction and the Future
The reaction to Gladwell’s resignation was mixed. Some fire victims welcomed the news, hoping it would lead to a faster and fairer compensation process. Others were skeptical, saying it was too little, too late, and that the problems were not limited to one person.
The claims office said it would hire a new director to lead the consolidated recovery operation in New Mexico. It did not say when that would happen or who would be eligible for the position.
The claims office also said it had identified a flaw in its reporting system that affected the timeline management of some cases. It said it was addressing the issue and was calling the parties involved to notify them and discuss available steps to process their claims as quickly as possible.
The claims office said it remained committed to providing “the best possible service” to the fire victims and to “ensuring they receive the compensation they are entitled to under the law”.