LAS VEGAS, NM — About a dozen people listened with somber expressions last week as a Colorado-based wildfire expert sporting a bolo tie talked about government liability — and how his firm could help victims recover damages caused by Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
After the presentation, the audience — most had lost either land or homes in a disaster that offered a one-two punch of searing fire, then ravaging floods — huddled in small groups. They shared stories of the recent past and concerns for the future.
“I bought the land because it was beautiful,” one man said in a ballroom adjacent to the Las Vegas plaza. “You can give me a million dollars, but I can’t rebuild the forest.”
Such meetings are becoming common in the sprawling Northern New Mexico fire zone, with private consulting firms and plaintiffs’ attorneys offering to represent fire and flood victims as they assess the damage to their homes, land and psyches.
The lawyers’ and consultants’ presence is evident now on television and radio, as they seek business for damage claims one attorney estimated could total more than $1 billion.
“I’ll fight fire with fire,” one lawyer says in a commercial playing on an Albuquerque radio station.
Though US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and Sen. Ben Ray Luján have introduced a bill in May that would authorize full compensation for losses caused by the 342,000-acre wildfire — a calamity that scorched hundreds of square miles of beautiful forest and hundreds of homes.
But with the outcome of that solution still uncertain, many residents are willing to at least listen to attorneys and other experts as they consider lawsuits.
Many say they aren’t sure what to do next but feel they must do something.
“There has been absolutely nothing out of the Forest Service,” said Toby Dolan, a retired New Mexico State Police officer whose family lost three homes on a 15-acre tract between Sapello and Rociada.
“I hear rumblings about a bill our congressional delegate has produced. But not a lot of information about what it would look like or how we should go about recouping our losses,” Dolan added.
The experts and law firms currently courting fire victims in the region have been one of his best sources of information. The number of firms who have descended on the region in recent months is unknown, but it’s believed at least 12 are in the area.
“Based on the lack of communication from anyone else, I have found them to be helpful,” Dolan said. “We are almost having to rely upon them to feed us information. That’s where I’ve learned everything about the potential processes going forward.”
Dolan — who is living at his workplace while his mother, 76, and grandmother, 96, are in a rented apartment following the destruction of their homes — said it irks him the family will likely have to pay about a quarter of any settlement they get to a lawyer.
But, Dolan noted of the attorneys, “I really don’t see how it’s possible to navigate the process without one.”
Assessing the damage
Gerald Singleton, managing partner of the San Diego-based law firm Singleton Schreiber — his website boasts of collecting more than $1 billion for California wildfire claimants — said it’s still unclear how New Mexicans affected by the fire should best go about collecting damages.
There are two paths people can take, he said.
One, he said, is to file a claim with the US Forest Service, which has admitted it set the prescribed burns that went awry. The agency, he added, would have up to six months to pay or deny the claim.
If the claim is denied, Singleton said the claimant would then need to file a lawsuit, provide proof of damages and government liability before being paid out.
The other way, he said, is through the bill working its way through Congress, which could create a system through which people would simply have to submit evidence of their damages in order to receive a check.
“My hope is there will be an administrative process set up instead of people having to sue,” Singleton said.
If such a system is created, Singleton said, claimants will have to decide if they want to pursue that process or a lawsuit. They can’t do both.
In the meantime, he said, his firm’s experts are evaluating clients’ property in anticipation of having to prove how much it will cost them to recover from and repair damage caused by the fires and subsequent floods.
“No matter what happens, if you had significant losses, you are going to need a lawyer,” Singleton said.
Las Vegas-based lawyer Eugenio Mathis has teamed up with other attorneys from Colorado, Texas and New Mexico in advertising their services in newspapers and on the radio in hopes of capturing some of the business from what he estimates could be “thousands” of claims.
His firm has even bought advertising on five billboards spread around Mora and San Miguel counties.
“We got into it a little later than some of the other law firms,” said Mathis, adding he hopes being a familiar face in the region might give him an edge.
He said he’s already he’s been contacted by dozens of potential clients.
“Sometimes there is a distrust of lawyers,” Mathis said. “I’ve heard from a couple of people: ‘Don’t sign up with a law firm, lawyers just want money.’
“Of course, everyone wants to get paid for their work, but our focus is trying to get money for these people,” he continued. “Generally speaking, individuals who hire counsel are likely to receive more money that someone who just tries to go ahead on their own.”
Mathis said he is still trying to determine if others could be culpable in the fire.
“The United States Forest Service is the primary defendant on all our cases is our thinking at this point,” he said. “But investigation is ongoing, and we still don’t know if there are other entities involved.”
With the number of potential litigants so large, the attorneys competing for their business have come up with unique marketing strategies they hope will make them stand out from the crowd.
Singleton, for example, said people seeking representation for fire losses should look for a firm with the financial resources to front the cost of expert witnesses and other pre-judgment costs.
Mathis said victims should seek someone they trust.
Frank Carroll, managing partner of Professional Forest Management — the consultants offering fire damage expertise last week — said regardless of whether filing a claim form or a lawsuit, people should hire someone to assist them who has experience suing the federal government.
Despite the Forest Service’s admission of how the fire started, it doesn’t mean it will be easy for people to be compensated for their losses, he said.
The Forest Service is authorized to conduct prescribed burns and is protected by governmental immunity, Carroll said, so claimants may have to prove the agency acted unlawfully to be awarded damages.
“It’s a very specialized area of law,” he said. “Completely different from typical liability law. There are lawyers from California coming over here thinking this case is like the [Pacific Gas & Electric] edition, where they dropped a power line, and it’s nothing like that.”
Carroll’s firm lists as a partner former ranger Joe Reddan, who once worked in the Pecos Ranger District.
‘I need to find the tools’
Some landowners are taking full advantage of information sessions like the one held in Las Vegas on Tuesday and Rociada on Wednesday.
Ron Ortega, the fifth-generation owner of the 900-acre Cañon de Medio Ranch in Gallinas Canyon, said he’s been attending as many meetings as he can in an attempt to figure out how best to help the ranch recover from the fire — or make it better than it was before.
“By the grace of God,” all his structures were spared, Ortega said. But the ranch suffered other major losses from the fire and subsequent floods.
“Our biggest damage is the timber stand,” he said. “We are a timber business, we’ve lost approximately 30 percent of our timber stand … and now we are seeing the damage from erosion, [water tanks] being filled with debris, roads are being washed over and destroyed.
“I’m like a project manager,” he said. “It’s a project, and I’m managing it. I need to find the tools and the resources to finish the project…but this project is out of my league.”
Ortega said he knows he has up to two years to file a claim against the federal government, so he’s not rushing into anything.
“The thing that is concerning me is there are a group of people, lawyers and such, telling us ‘Don’t worry, you can trust us; we’ll take care of it,’ ” he said. “But I’m not buying that.”
Ortega said he’s still unsure how anyone can put a price on intangible things such as “the emotional stress, the human life.”
“I can put a value to number of trees destroyed,” he said. “I understand soil movement and equipment. But I don’t understand how you put a dollar value to fear … to sleepless nights.”
Some residents are girding for the long haul, whether it’s through litigation or the time it will take for the area to recover from the fire.
“This is far from over,” Dolan said. “We’re being told to expect five to seven years of potential flooding over these burn scars.”
He said even if his family were to be compensated, he questions whether the money would do them any good as they face the prospect of securing the region’s thinly spread contractors to build three new homes.
“We’re torn,” he said. “Do we rebuild? Do we relocate? What do we do? This is an economic gut punch to this region that will take, in my best guess, 25 years or more to recover from.”