An 85-page US Forest Service review of the origins of the Hermits Peak Fire suggests the largest wildfire in state history was caused largely by a breakdown in protocols. But the review also revealed a troubling culture issue within the service.
The Forest Service’s own review said a local crew faced pressure to “get the job done,” which may have led the crew to take greater risks in the rush to catch up on prescribed burns after the postponements of many burning projects due to the COVID-19 pandemic and litigation.
The desire to mitigate the threat of wildfires through prescribed burns is understandable, even laudable. But ignoring protocols to keep the forest safe is far from acceptable — and any culture that favors this needs to change.
The report says the local team made a series of mistakes, including relying too heavily on regional weather forecasts instead of field observations, underestimating the drought in the Santa Fe National Forest, then by failing to guarantee sufficient water resources and logistical support. available in case of problem.
The team still proceeded on April 6 with the prescribed burn west of Las Vegas, New Mexico, facing a narrow window for the project.
The review noted that crews had diluted fuels along lines of control before burning, but found that fuels outside the burn boundary were extremely susceptible to igniting and creating fires. punctual. The preparatory work may have actually heightened the potential for an out-of-control forest fire with natural debris “fuels concentrated in the jackpots”.
The Las Dispensas prescribed burning fire quickly escaped project boundaries and morphed into the Hermits Peak Fire, which in late April merged with the Calf Canyon Fire to become the largest wildfire in the history of the State. And where were the fire crews assigned to help if the burn jumped its containment lines? They were nearly two hours away from a fire training summit in Taos.
The combined blaze has destroyed at least 400 homes, forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate their properties in several northern New Mexico counties, cost more than $248 million in firefighting expenses, wreaks havoc unknowns on wildlife, livestock, pets and irreplaceable family treasures and burned over 341,000 acres.
And the calamity is not over yet, as communities below the burns prepare for likely landslides and flash flooding. The Forest Service, which manages nearly a third of the state’s forested land and 25 percent of our fishing habitat, predicts ash will flow into streams, rivers and acequias, which could overwhelm facilities. water treatment and adversely affect water quality for years to come.
The Forest Service has acknowledged that it also created the Calf Canyon Fire, following a ‘stack fire’ in January that smoldered underground for months despite snowstorms and freezing temperatures and has surfaced above ground on April 9.
As the Hermits Peak Fire closed in on homes in Pendaries Village and San Ignacio, fire crews monitoring the Calf Canyon Fire were ordered by Forest Service supervisors to leave this small fire to protect structures. on the way to the growing Hermits Peak fire.
Fuels for potential wildfires have been rising for years due to mismanagement of forest lands, in part as a result of litigation over the Mexican spotted owl. And everyone in New Mexico, from Las Cruces to Taos, knows how windy it gets in April.
The report contains important lessons regarding protocols, but it also pointed out that the Gallinas watershed prescribed burn plan was prepared in 2019 and approved in October 2021. It has not been updated despite the extremely exacerbated by a dry winter.
Recommendations to prevent future catastrophic prescribed burns include strengthening employee feedback methods and ensuring multiple perspectives support the test fire and final burn decision.
The Forest Service needs to better involve local authorities before any prescribed burning on federal lands. The changing winds in the burned area should have been observed with local instruments instead of relying on wind forecasts from the National Weather Service.
Several remote weather stations in the burnt area malfunctioned or had data gaps in the weeks leading up to the project and radio communication was spotty or non-existent between project managers. The examination even revealed that it was difficult to determine who was present on the burn due to incomplete records.
The review touts prescribed fires as “the most ecologically appropriate and often the most economical tool” for maintaining healthy forest ecosystems, but it does not elaborate on how the Forest Service has allowed our forests to degrade with policies that limited the collection of firewood and grazing, creating a powder keg. More local input and involvement would help better manage our forests.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham says she is “deeply frustrated with the many missteps” identified in the review, while U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández, who represents the scorched area, called the findings “incredibly disturbing.” They are both right. The governor notes that it does not appear that anyone involved in the prescribed burn “has been held accountable for any significant errors made during this burn.”
A silver lining of the review is that it comes quickly. The Forest Service could have investigated the Hermits Peak Fire for years, but it didn’t. We hope the timeliness of the report is a sign that lessons will be learned and applied quickly.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has commissioned its own investigation. Its good. We need an independent investigation to ensure that local Forest Service officials have the authority to call the train back to the station the next time an unwarranted fire is about to occur, especially at a time of mega -drought, erratic spring winds and climate change.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than that of the editors.