May 28, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Forest Service says it caused New Mexico's largest wildfire

Firefighters putting out a hotspot from a wildfire near Mora, New Mexico, on May 13.

Firefighters putting out a hotspot from a wildfire near Mora, New Mexico, on May 13. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The U.S. Forest Service disclosed Friday that it caused both fires that converged into the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire, New Mexico's largest fire that is still burning in the Santa Fe National Forest.

Why it matters: It's currently the largest fire nationwide at around 314,000 acres and has destroyed more than 750 structures, displaced thousands of people and has cost almost $133 million in suppression efforts so far. It is still 52% uncontained, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

The service previously said it was responsible for the Hermits Peak Fire, originally a separate blaze. It started from a prescribed burn escaping containment in early April, then merged with the Calf Canyon Fire — the cause of which was previously undetermined.

  • The Forest Service announced Friday its investigators deduced that the Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a "sleeper fire" from a burn pile on federal land that was ignited in January but was never fully extinguished.
  • It said the fire survived "under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April."

What they're saying: “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," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Friday.

  • “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," she added.

The big picture: In response to the Hermits Peak Fire, Forest Service chief Randy Moore suspended all prescribed fires on land owned by the federal government for at least 90 days to review the service's prescribed fire protocols.

  • Prescribed fires are a tool for protecting communities from extreme fire danger on a large scale, as they burn off dead or excess trees and other plants, reducing the total fuel available for future wildfires. More than 99% of them go according to plan, according to Moore.

Our thought bubble via Axios' Russell Contreras: The U.S. Forest Service has long been considered an enemy by many in New Mexico, especially Hispanic ranchers who have been here for generations.

  • Forest Service officials control grazing and water policy, and are the de facto police in rural, isolated areas.
  • They also do these burns, which are needed to get rid of brush. But they do them at the wrong times — the Land of Enchantment has been in severe and extreme drought.

What's next: Nearly 3,000 personnel have been sent to help extinguish the fire, encompassing 59 hand crews, 192 fire engines and 33 firefighting aircraft.

  • Much of the Southwest, including all of New Mexico, will remain under a red flag warning until Sunday afternoon because of critical extreme fire weather from high winds, hot temperatures and low humidity levels, according to the National Weather Service.

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