What is happening
Two fires in New Mexico have merged to become the largest in state history. We now know that both started with controlled burns.
why is it important
More than 300,000 acres have burned and continue to burn, affecting tens of thousands of residents.
On January 29, US Forest Service crews completed a pile burning in the Santa Fe National Forest approximately 17 miles west of the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Somewhere in this pile of scorched debris and woody debris, the embers would continue to burn slowly for the next nine weeks.
Then, on April 9, a fire was rekindled from the stake.
These embers had lain dormant from the depths of winter until they awoke in early April. They would continue to grow into the Calf Canyon Fire, which would later merge with another wildfire related to a prescribed burn. The combined Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fire complex has since grown to more than 314,000 acres to become the wildfire with the largest footprint currently burning in the United States and the largest in the history of New -Mexico.
As of Friday, the Forest Service, part of the federal Department of Agriculture, has now accepted responsibility for the two fires which have merged into the massive inferno continuing to burn a corridor through mountain forests, small villages and more of 40 miles.
“Forest Service fire investigators have determined that the Calf Canyon Fire in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) was caused by January heap burn residue that is lay dormant below the surface for three winter snow events before re-emerging in April,” the agency said in a statement. statement released on Friday.
Planned burns — sometimes called controlled or prescribed burns — have been a key part of forest management in the United States for years. The basic idea is to reduce the amount of fuel in the forest so that when a fire inevitably spreads it is easier to contain and less likely to lead to a devastating crown fire. Crown fires can occur when an abundant fuel load on or near the ground fuels a fire that burns into the canopy, causing widespread destruction of the forest and everything in its path.
“In 99.84% of cases, prescribed fires go as planned”, Forest Service Chief Ronald Moore in a statement on May 20.
Under normal conditions, it might be reasonable to assume that a layer of snow already on the ground in January and subsequent snowstorms would be sufficient to extinguish any existing hot spots in the burnt pile. But this year, climate change and natural weather variations have combined to create unusually dry and warm early season conditions in the southwestern United States. Weeks of unusually strong winds exacerbated the situation. At some point in early May, the National Weather Service had issued a red flag warning — signifying wind, heat and drought creating ideal conditions for a wildfire to ignite and spread — for northern New Mexico. in 25 of the previous 30 days.
The fire forced tens of thousands offor several weeks, hundreds of houses and other structures have been destroyed, livestock has been lost. Fortunately, there were no human casualties.
Governor of New Mexico Michelle Lujan Grisham welcomed the announcement that the Forest Service took responsibility, but did not mince words.
“The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service — an agency that is supposed to be a steward of our lands — is unfathomable,” she said in a statement Friday. “This is a first step toward full federal accountability.”
After the Calf Canyon Fire reappeared for the first time from that winter burn on April 9, it burned an acre and a half before fire crews could build a containment line around the blaze.
Ten days later, the fire came to life again with the help of high winds and extreme fire conditions. It escaped containment lines on April 19, then increased significantly when gusty winds fueled the fire on April 22.
During the first week of May, the Calf Canyon Fire grew to merge with the Hermit’s Peak Fire, which itself was caused by a prescribed burn also put in place by the US Forest Service.
On April 6, the agency began burning several miles north of where the Calf Canyon pile burn was still secretly smoldering.
“Although forecast weather conditions were within prescribed fire parameters, unexpectedly erratic winds in the late afternoon caused several localized fires that spread outside the project boundaries,” said the Forest Service Summary of the Incident. “It was declared a forest fire at approximately 4:30 p.m. on April 6, 2022.”
Lujan Grisham started calling for a temporary halt to prescribed burns in the state after the fires coalesced, and the Forest Service eventually agreed.
“I am entering a pause in prescribed burn operations on National Forest System lands while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools and practices,” said Moore, the Head of Forest Service.
On Friday, Lujan Grisham urged the federal government to re-evaluate its fire management practices to account for climate change that contributed to a historic mega-drought in the Southwest.
“New Mexico and the West must take every precaution to prevent fires of this magnitude from occurring, especially as rainfall continues to decline and temperatures rise.”
The combined blaze is now 48 per cent under control, with more than 3,000 firefighters working to increase that figure while preparing for a forecast that portends more heat, wind and critical fire weather.