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A prescription for disaster


A prescription for disaster

Jun 23, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Patrick Lohmann
A prescription for disaster
A half-burnt tree overlooking the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar June 9. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

More than 11 weeks after a prescribed burn escaped containment lines 12 miles north of Las Vegas, the public is finally learning more about what went wrong to cause the biggest fire in New Mexico history.

In the meantime: Thousands evacuated, homes and livelihoods destroyed, a water supply imperiled, a wilderness reduced to ash.

Over the last 11 weeks, Source New Mexico has brought you about 50 stories covering the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire disaster here from different angles, including forest management policy, the role of climate change, an election in a disaster zone, the people affected, the dual air quality crisis of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke, FEMA’s role and the way New Mexicans were compensated the last time the Forest Service screwed up this badly.

Taken together, the stories show the many, far-reaching consequences of a decision to ignite a 1,200-acre swath of forest on a windy day during a severe drought, a decision we now learned was approved despite a staff shortage, misgivings by some crew members, malfunctioning equipment, lack of water, the bad modeling and inaccurate weather data.

“They undervalued my community. They undervalued our homes. They undervalued our history. They undervalued mi gente, right?” U.S. Rep Teresa Leger Fernandez told Source New Mexico on June 21.

Below, you’ll find a selection of stories from reporter Patrick Lohmann that show a weeks-long fight for insight into what went wrong that day, plus stories that connect this crisis to human-caused climate change, a century of forest mismanagement, and a failure to adapt to the reality of megadrought in the Southwest.

More coverage:

June 21: Major mistakes the Forest Service made in starting biggest fire in New Mexico history

June 21: Leger Fernandez: Forest Service ‘undervalued’ NM region where prescribed burn was ignited

June 14: 30% of New Mexicans seeking FEMA help got denial letters

June 9: FEMA provides millions to those affected by wildfire, but real cash help is still pending

June 3: Forest Service barely, sorta met burn requirements before Hermits Peak fire, plan shows

May 24: MLG asks feds to consider ‘extreme’ scenarios ahead of every prescribed burn

May 19: Cerro Grande fire victims were ‘fully compensated’ decades ago. NM gov seeks the same in 2022.

May 10: Governor promises a temporary halt to prescribed burns while wildfires rage in New Mexico

May 10: Forecasts showed 25 mph gusts on the day U.S. Forest Service ignited prescribed burn. 

May 9: U.S. Forest Service defends prescribed burn that caused Hermits Peak fire

May 4: Cerro Grande fire expert: Feds doing a prescribed burn in spring ‘extremely risky’

See our interview with NMPBS about reporting challenges and the fire’s effect on the community:

And check out some hard-earned documents we pried out of the Forest Service and other public sources:

The Forest Service review of the escaped prescribed burn in Las Dispensas


The prescribed burn plan from 2018


The 2005 Environmental Assessment for Gallinas Watershed