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

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

May 09, 2022 | 6:30 am ET
By Patrick Lohmann
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U.S. Forest Service defends prescribed burn that caused Hermits Peak fire
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The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire on Sunday, May 8. (Public domain photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

A United States Forest Service spokesperson said the prescribed burn that got out of control to become the Hermits Peak fire is a rare occurrence, and she defended prescribed burns as a necessary risk required to protect the nation’s forests. 

The service is also conducting a “review” of Las Dispensas prescribed burn April 6 south of Mora, New Mexico. Because of the “review,” the spokesperson said Friday, the service will not provide additional details about the decision to ignite the fire on a windy April day or provide Source New Mexico a copy of the “prescribed burn plan.” The plan is a document that must be prepared in advance of any prescribed burn that includes details about forecasted weather conditions, potential hazards, personnel needs and other information. 

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

As with most cases, the prescribed fire is currently under review,” Forest Service spokesperson Michelle Burnett told Source New Mexico. “So it would be premature to comment on the details or release any documents, including the prescribed burn plan, until after that is complete.”

The service has said that forecasted weather conditions were “within parameters of the prescribed burn,” but the agency has declined to specify what those parameters were.

A Santa Fe National Forest crew ignited what was supposed to be the 1,200-acre Las Dispensas prescribed burn April 6, and officials have since said “unexpected erratic winds” fanned embers beyond the perimeter of the burn site. 

What became the Hermits Peak fire burned about 7,500 acres before joining forces with the Calf Canyon fire a couple weeks later. At the time it merged, the Hermits Peak fire was about 91% contained, according to the Southwest Coordination Center. 

The combined Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has now burned nearly 190,000 acres in northern New Mexico — according to Monday, May 9 numbers — quickly becoming the second-biggest fire in state history. The megafire caused thousands to flee their homes and torched hundreds of structures. Unprecedented wind surges in the coming days could mean the fire spreads even further out of control. It’s 43% contained. 

U.S. Forest Service defends prescribed burn that caused Hermits Peak fire
Urijah Reyes Thiago Man Martinez, 8, holds up a trout he caught Friday, May 6 at Storrie Lake, as the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire rages behind him. He and an elderly relative have taken to wearing their masks outside again to protect from smoke particles. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called on the federal forest agency to rework its rules around prescribed burns in the Southwest, specifically when it comes to starting fires in the spring windy season. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez also wrote a letter last week to the USFS secretary demanding answers about how the prescribed burn was approved. 

A New Mexico fire expert told Source New Mexico last week that it was “extremely risky” to have ignited the burn in early April. 

The prescribed burn was previously scheduled for mid-March, but officials called it off due to snow on the ground, according to a statement at the time. 

Burnett said the Forest Service does about 100 prescribed fires each year, and just two others have escaped and become wildfires since 2011. 

Prescribed fire is one of the most efficient and low-cost ways of reducing wildfire risk,” Burnett told Source New Mexico in a statement. “Regularly conducting low-grade prescribed fires, which mimic nature, reduces and maintains the buildup of flammable vegetation and overgrowth. When wildfires come through an area after a prescribed burn, they are more likely to be smaller, easier to control and much less dangerous.”

In May 2000, the National Park Service ignited a prescribed burn near Los Alamos. Winds also spun that fire out of control, eventually destroying hundreds of Los Alamos homes and causing $1 billion in damage. 

U.S. Forest Service defends prescribed burn that caused Hermits Peak fire
Dave Bales, incident commander for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire response, addresses reporters Friday in Las Vegas, N.M. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

Calf Canyon cause unknown

The cause of the Calf Canyon fire is still being determined, though some residents and an elected official from the area have wondered whether the Hermits Peak fire actually provided the spark. 

For that to have happened, high winds April 19 would have had to have carried a live ember at least three miles from the western edge of the Hermits Peak fire west to the ignition site in Calf Canyon. 

Dave Bales, incident commander in charge of the fighting the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire, told Source New Mexico on Friday that he did not think it’s possible for the Hermits Peak fire to have caused the Calf Canyon fire. 

While it’s plausible lit embers could have traveled that far, he said, the winds were going in the wrong direction that day. 

“It was just the way the winds were blowing and where the Calf Canyon fire started. It wasn’t possible to spot that way, from what I’ve seen,” he said. 

The Forest Service has not provided an estimate about when a cause will officially be determined. 

Meanwhile, more than 1,300 personnel have gathered in New Mexico in recent weeks to fight the nation’s biggest wildfire. Fire managers are warning of “unprecedented” winds that will surge up to 60 mph and not die down at night. 

The winds, which Lujan Grisham said create the “worst possible” conditions, could mean the fire rapidly grows its footprint over the next several days. Bales also said containment — which has remained around 20% over the last week or so — could actually decrease during the wind surge. 

He urged residents to stay safe and do their best not to spark a fire, one that could quickly become unmanageable and further tax resources in conditions like this. 

“Any spark in these types of winds could create another start for us that we would have to focus on as well, on top of the main fire itself,” Bales said at a news briefing Friday in Las Vegas. “So we’re asking for a lot of support, please help us.”

Correction

This story was updated at noon on May 10, 2022, to correctly reflect that the Cerro Grande fire 22 years ago was ignited by the National Park Service.