An 85-page review by the U.S. Forest Service of the origins of the Hermits Peak fire suggests that the largest forest fire in the state’s history was largely caused by a breakdown in protocols. But the review also revealed a worrying cultural issue within the service.
The inspection, carried out by the forest service itself, said a local team was under pressure to “complete the mission”, which probably led the crew to take greater risks in rushing to catch up with the prescribed burns after delaying many incineration projects. due to the COVID-19 pandemic and litigation.
The desire to mitigate the threat of forest fires through prescribed burns is understandable – even commendable. But it is far from acceptable to ignore protocols aimed at protecting forest safety – and any culture that promotes this needs to change.
The report says the local team made a series of mistakes, including relying too much on regional weather forecasts instead of on-site observations, underestimating how dry the Santa Fe National Forest was and then failing to provide enough water resources and logistical support. available in case something goes wrong.
However, the team continued on April 6 with the prescribed burn west of Las Vegas, New Mexico, when faced with a narrow window for the project.
The inspection noted that the crews diluted fuels on the control lines before the combustion, but found that fuels outside the combustion limit are extremely likely to ignite and create point fires. The preparatory work may in fact have exacerbated the potential for a fugitive forest fire with natural debris, “concentrated fuels in jackpots”.
The burns prescribed by Las Dispensas soon escaped the project’s boundaries and became the Hermits Peak Fire, which merged with the Calf Canyon fire in late April to become the largest forest fire in the country’s history. And where were the fire brigades tasked with helping if the burn jumped over the detention lines? They were nearly two hours away for a Taos fire summit.
The combined fire destroyed at least 400 homes, forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate their properties in several northern counties in New Mexico, cost more than $ 248 million in firefighting, caused unknown casualties to wildlife, livestock, pets and irreplaceable family treasures and burned more than 341,000 acres.
And the disaster is not over yet, as communities under the scars of burns are preparing for possible landslides and flash floods. The Forest Service, which manages nearly a third of the state’s forested land and 25 percent of our fishing habitat, predicts that the ash will flow into streams, rivers and acequias, likely to clog water treatment facilities and damage quality. of water for years to come.
The Forest Service also admitted that it created the fire in Calf Canyon, the result of a “pile fire” in January that smoldered underground for months despite snowstorms and low temperatures and reappeared above the ground on April 9.
As the Hermits Peak fire approached homes in Pendaries Village and San Ignacio, fire crews monitoring the Calf Canyon fire were ordered by forest service supervisors to leave that small flame to protect structures along the way to the growing Hermits Peak fire.
Fuels for potential forest fires have been rising for years due to poor forest management, in part as a result of litigation over the Mexican barn owl. And everyone in New Mexico from Las Cruces to Taos knows how windy it is in April.
The report contains important lessons regarding the protocols, but also states that the prescribed Galinas catchment fire plan was prepared in 2019 and approved in October 2021. It has not been updated despite the extremely dry conditions worsened by the dry winter.
Recommendations to prevent future catastrophic prescribed burns include strengthening employee feedback methods and ensuring that multiple points of view support the test fire and the ultimate burn solution.
The Forest Service needs to better involve local officials before any prescribed burning of federal land. The changing winds in the burning area had to be monitored with local instruments, instead of relying on wind forecasts from the National Weather Service.
Several remote meteorological stations in the incineration area were malfunctioning or had data gaps in the weeks before the project and radio communication was spotty or non-existent between project managers. The examination even found that it was difficult to determine who was present at the burn due to incomplete records.
The review highlights prescribed fires as “the most environmentally sound and often the most economical” tool for maintaining healthy forest ecosystems, but fails to see how the forest service has allowed our forests to degrade with policies that limit the collection of firewood and grazing, creating a dust box. More local input and participation would help better manage our forests.
Governor Michel Lujan Grisham said she was “deeply disappointed by the numerous mistakes” identified in the review, while US spokeswoman Theresa Leger Fernandez, who represents the burned area, called the findings “incredibly disturbing”. They are both right. The governor notes that no one involved in the prescribed incineration “appears to have been held responsible for the significant errors made during that incineration.”
One silver side of the show is that it comes immediately. The Forest Service could have been investigating the Hermit Peak fire for years, but it didn’t. We hope that the speed of the report is a sign that the lessons will be learned and implemented quickly.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has commissioned its own investigation. This is good. We need an independent investigation to ensure that local forest service staff have the right to call the train back to the station the next time a relentless burn is imminent, especially in an era of megadush, volatile 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, not the writers.