Forest Service chief blames climate change for New Mexico fires

by Will Tubbs

Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News


According to the head of the U.S. Forest Service, the federal government is responsible for the wildfires that have ravaged New Mexico for months, but not as responsible as global warming.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said an extensive study he ordered in early May revealed, in his opinion, that his employees followed every protocol, but conditions Moore attributed to climate change led to the fires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres and caused as-yet-untold millions of dollars of property damage.

“Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes,” Moore said in a statement, “we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground. We must learn from this event and ensure our decision-making processes, tools, and procedures reflect these changed conditions.”

Moore confirmed what had long been established, that the fires were caused when a January prescribed burn at Las Dispensas reignited months after employees believed it had been extinguished.

“That type of event was nearly unheard of until recently in the century-plus of experience the Forest Service has in working on these landscapes,” Moore said.

The resulting Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires still burn, now as a single wildfire that firefighters had 72% contained as of Wednesday night.

While Moore stressed that “the employees involved followed all procedures and policies, to a fire that escaped its containment lines and became the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history,” the report to which he cites contains information that puts the Forest Service in a less favorable light.

Specifically, the report states that a 2018-19 government shutdown, which was instigated by Democrats, led to furloughs, which led to a backlog of projects. This was compounded by pandemic lockdowns as well as an environmental injunction meant to protect the Mexican spotted owl, which prevented burns from September 2019-October 2020.

“These consecutive and overlapping events not only affected overall employee morale, but also built a sense of urgency to accomplish projects to ‘catch up,’” the report reads.

The report’s executive summary concludes, “These expectations, coupled with the opportunity to implement during a narrow window when the crew was available, smoke dispersion was good and the prescribed fire area was forecasted to be in prescription, led to acceptance of unforeseen risk.”

Another misstep identified in the report was the revelation that employees used a burn plan that had not been modified to account for the changes in burn conditions or weather that Moore cites as the true culprit. Forest Service employees, again with the apparent desire of catching up on several years’ worth of projects, performed the New Mexico burn on a warm, dry day, which the report concludes added another layer of risk.

“The combination of changes in fuel conditions, underestimated potential fire behavior outside the burn unit, and conducting the prescribed fire on the warmer and drier end of the prescription, led to an increased probability of an escaped prescribed fire, if the burn spread beyond the unit boundary,” the report said.

Moore mentioned none of this in his statement, but did encourage people to read the full report.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was unreserved in her expression of dissatisfaction with the report and the Forest Service.

“I am deeply frustrated by the numerous missteps within the Las Dispensas burn identified by this review,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “It is very difficult to understand how a plan crafted several years ago could be repeatedly re-approved without adjustments or considerations for updated drought conditions, as well as how that plan could be put into place without any immediate data for weather conditions during what New Mexicans know to be a particularly windy time of the year. In addition, it does not appear that anyone involved in this burn was held to account for the significant mistakes made during this burn.”

President Joe Biden has long held that the federal government bears full responsibility for the fires, and has exhausted every avenue at his disposal to pay for recovery, save approaching Congress.

In early May, the Forest Service has paused all of its prescribed burns.