The U.S. Forest Service released its report Tuesday, June 21, into the circumstances that led to the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak Fire, a massive wildfire that resulted from two prescribed burns of the Santa Fe National Forest that became out of control and then merged. As of Tuesday, the wildfire had scorched 341,471 acres in northern New Mexico.
The results indicate that the US Forest Service could make sweeping changes to how it models, plans, and executes prescribed burns and other forest management practices. The report highlights several missteps by the Forest Service, ranging from a lack of consistent radio communication between those tasked with managing the original controlled burn to a lack of attention to climate change.
In the preface to the report, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore calls the Forest Service “a learning organization,” which “must be accountable and moving forward to continue fulfilling our critical mission of protecting forests.” and communities against forest fires”.
The Las Dispensas prescribed burn was ignited on April 6 according to an approved plan, quickly spiraled out of control and merged around April 21 with a “residual” pile burn at Calf Canyon that had lain dormant for months but is became active amid warmer weather and strong winds.
The combined fires burned for two months over a vast expanse of land, destroying or damaging more than 1,200 structures, displacing thousands of people, damaging water supply systems and other infrastructure and causing economic hardship in at least four counties.
Moore established the May 10 “Chief’s Review of the Hermit Fire Spike” to “understand how this tragic event unfolded,” according to Moore’s foreword to the report. Moore established a nationwide moratorium on prescribed burns on Forest Service lands on May 20.
The report reveals that Las Dispensas’ prescribed burning plan was approved in 2019 but has not been updated – in terms of worsening drought conditions, for example – in the years that followed, including including this year, when the plan was implemented as part of the long-term Gallinas Municipal Watershed Wildland Urban Interface Project established in 2001.
“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground that we have never encountered,” Moore wrote in the report’s preface. “We know these conditions lead to more frequent and intense wildfires. Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes test our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to fighting destructive fires.This spring in New Mexico, a dangerous log pile fire that began in January, smoldered underground for months, lingering through multiple snowstorms and freezing temperatures, before reigniting surface like a forest fire This type of event was almost unheard of until recently during the Forest Service’s century of experience on these landscapes.
“The fires are beyond our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how the mega-drought and climate change affect our actions on the ground,” adds Moore. “We must learn from this event and ensure that our decision-making processes, tools and procedures reflect these new conditions.”
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement Tuesday after the report was released.
“I am deeply frustrated with the many missteps in the Las Dispensas burning identified by this review,” she said. “It is very difficult to understand how a plan developed years ago could be repeatedly re-approved without adjustments or updated drought considerations. conditions, as well as how this plan could be put in place without any immediate weather data during what New Mexicans know is a particularly windy time of year. Further, it does not appear that anyone involved in this burn was held accountable for any significant mistakes made during this burn.”
Lujan Grisham reiterated his promise “to hold the federal government accountable for making New Mexicans whole after the extreme hardship caused by Forest Service neglect.” She highlighted several key findings from the report:
The Las Dispensas burn plan was approved in 2019 and reapproved annually thereafter without adjustments for prolonged drought conditions.
The review revealed that many details regarding weather situational awareness in the fire environment have been overlooked or misrepresented, including the availability and representativeness of remote automated weather stations, portable electronic weather observations, and the documentation.
Planners used a fuel model that did not match actual conditions on the ground, resulting in an incorrect fuel model and miscalculation of emergency resources that would be needed on site during the fire to suppress a leak.
Although there is evidence that the planners of the burn knew there was no water at the site to put out a spot fire, they did not include the water resources or the logistics to deliver the water. on site in their prescribed burn plan.