Forest Service says it was cause of record New Mexico wildfire

by mcardinal

Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News


The largest wildfire to have ever occurred in New Mexico was started, albeit unintentionally, by the U.S. Forest Service.

Friday, fire investigators revealed that the Calf Canyon fire spawned from a prescribed burn pile created by rangers in the Santa Fe National Forest.

According to a press release, rangers believed the pile had been extinguished in January, but a holdover fire, sometimes referred to as a sleeper fire, had remained dormant under the service of the pile until April.

Strangely, in the press release Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Debbie Cress did not offer much in the way of an explanation of how such a fire would have gone undetected or what, if any, steps could have been taken to prevent the outbreak. Rather, she focused exclusively on ending the fires, which continue to burn.

“The Santa Fe National Forest is 100 percent focused on suppressing these fires with the support of the Type 1 incident management teams who are fully prepared to manage complex, all-risk situations,” Cress said. “Our commitment is to manage the public lands entrusted to us by improving the forest’s resilience to the many stressors they are facing, including larger, hotter wildfires, historic levels of drought, rising temperatures, and insects and disease.” 

The announcement found little sympathy among elected officials in New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, demanded accountability.

“The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service – an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands – is unfathomable,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “This is a first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility for the largest wildfire in state history, which has destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced tens of thousands of New Mexicans, and cost the state and local governments millions of dollars. I appreciate the U.S. Forest Service assuming responsibility for the federal actions that caused this terrible crisis.”

Lujan Grisham made it clear in her announcement that taking full responsibility means the federal government, not New Mexico, should have to pay the cost of fighting the fires. According to the governor, that bill has eclipsed $132 million and will continue to rise.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, one of two Democrats representing New Mexico in the upper chamber of Congress, did not weigh in on the matter of funding, but called for more transparency from the Forest Service.

“These record-breaking wildfires have displaced thousands from their homes and continue to take a costly toll on our forests and communities,” Heinrich said in a statement. “New Mexicans are exhausted, frustrated, and want answers. It is critical for the U.S. Forest Service to take full responsibility for its decisions and provide the public with transparency about its actions. Releasing these findings is a first step in that direction.”

Both the governor and senator placed partial blame on climate change.

 “It is evident that the federal government must take a hard look at their fire management practices and make sure they account for a rapidly changing climate,” Lujan Grisham said. “New Mexico and the West must take every precaution to prevent fires of this magnitude from occurring, especially as precipitation levels continue to decrease and temperatures rise.” 

Heinrich said climate change was not the cause of the fire, but rather the source of its spread, but vacillated on the matter of prescribed burns. At present, the Forest Service has placed a 90-day pause on all prescribed burns across the nation.

“There is no doubt that the warming climate is fueling the extremely dry and windy conditions that have made our wildfire seasons so much more dangerous and New Mexico’s forests more vulnerable to these fires,” Heinrich said. “In the face of this new climate reality, we will need every tool available in order to reduce fuel loads and the chances of catastrophic wildfire behavior. But it is also painfully clear that what may have served us well a decade or two ago will have to evolve in these challenging conditions. It is time for the Forest Service to update all their prescriptions and management tools to account for a windier, dryer reality in order to prevent this kind of disaster from reoccurring.”

According to Lujan Grisham, the Hermits Peak wildfire, which is burning concurrent with the Calf Canyon fire, was also the result of a prescribed burn gone awry.

The governor’s office reports that The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fire has burned more than 312,000 acres.