US Forest Service admits errors in routine prescribed burn that sparked largest fire in NM history

Jun 21, 2022, 3:45 PM | Updated: Jun 25, 2022, 8:52 pm
Daniel Encinias stands next to the ruins of his home, which was destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf ...
Daniel Encinias stands next to the ruins of his home, which was destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire in Tierra Monte, New Mexico. (Andrew Hay/Reuters via CNN)
(Andrew Hay/Reuters via CNN)

(CNN) — A Chief’s Review of New Mexico’s Hermits Peak Fire released Tuesday found that U.S. Forest Service errors during a routine prescribed burn contributed to the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

A years-long backlog of projects owing to department furloughs during the 2018-2019 government shutdown, complications of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and an injunction related to the Mexican Spotted Owl all restricted the Forest Service’s ability to thin trees and conduct prescribed burns in the years prior to spring 2022, according to the report.

That string of events “built a sense of urgency to accomplish projects to ‘catch up,'” the report stated. “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.”

A prescribed burn, or a controlled burn, is one set intentionally as part of a forest-management plan to reduce the risk of more serious and damaging blazes.

The report found that the prescribed fire that ultimately started the Hermits Peak fire — which has burned more than 340,000 acres in three counties since April 6 and is 72% contained as of Tuesday — was done “according to current standards and policy,” but several other factors increased the probability of an escaped prescribed fire.

“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 states.

The report went on to say that prescribed fires must remain a tool to combat wildfires, but climate change is having an impact on its safe use.

“Wildfires are threatening more communities than they ever have. Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely,” the report added.

In a foreward to the report, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said climate change is leading to more intense and frequent wildfires and “conditions on the ground we have never encountered.”

Forest Service officials said that multiple years of drought, limited snowpack with less moisture than normal, combined with a pileup of fuels helped spur the fire.

“Traditional monsoon precipitation was significantly below the historic average in 2019 and 2020,” the report said, adding overall precipitation in 2021 was also “near to below average for the northern New Mexico mountains.”

In addition, the winter snowpack fell far short of what was needed to bring moisture back to the ground and fuels, Forest Service officials said. The lack of snow until a strong snowstorm in March and April amounted to what officials called a “snow drought.”

“Along with below normal precipitation, the seasonal snowpack was significantly compressed, as it did not start until January then abruptly melted off much earlier than average,” the report stated. Even though the winter weather was cold, the lack of moisture in the snow until a spring snowstorm didn’t help dry conditions.

“I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals,” Moore said in the foreword. “In the most tragic events, people have lost their lives and it grieves us as agency employees who live and work in these communities.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

R. Kelly has been placed on suicide watch at the federal detention facility in New York where he is...
Sonia Moghe and Alaa Elassar, CNN

R. Kelly placed on suicide watch after being sentenced to 30 years in prison, his lawyer says

R. Kelly has been placed on suicide watch at the federal detention facility in New York where he is being held after he was sentenced this week to 30 years in prison on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, his lawyer said Friday.
1 day ago
A sunken World War II-Era Higgins landing craft that used to be nearly 200 feet underwater is being...
Associated Press

World War II-era boat emerges from shrinking Lake Mead

A sunken boat dating back to World War II is the latest object to emerge from a shrinking reservoir that straddles Nevada and Arizona.
1 day ago
The Florida Highway Patrol makes an arrest on June 29. The Florida Highway Patrol arrested two peop...
Jamiel Lynch, CNN

Florida Highway Patrol arrests two men in two days in separate human smuggling cases

The Florida Highway Patrol arrested two people this week for smuggling others into the state, according to incident reports from the agency.
1 day ago
This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventio...
Jen Christensen, CNN

‘You do not want this’ virus: California man with monkeypox urges others to get vaccinated

Matt Ford edits videos for a living, so it wasn't a stretch for him to put one together for TikTok. But his latest post wasn't a crazy dance or a video about how to peel a banana the right way. It's based on his own experience with monkeypox.
1 day ago
FILE: Walt Disney World Resort marked its 45th anniversary on October 1, 2016 in Lake Buena Vista, ...
Eliza Pace

Disney announces ‘Tiana’s Bayou Adventure’ ride to replace Splash Mountain

A new ride based on Disney's "Princess and the Frog,"  will replace the current Splash Mountain ride, Disney announced Friday.
1 day ago
(Stock image)...
Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Pets and fireworks: How to keep your animals calm and safe on July 4

We may find fireworks beautiful and festive, but they explode like magnified gunfire in the exquisitely sensitive ears of many of our pets.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

hand holding 3d rendering mobile connect with security camera for security solutions...
Les Olson

Wondering what security solutions are right for you? Find out more about how to protect your surroundings

Physical security helps everyone. Keep your employees, clients, and customers safe with security solutions that protect your workplace.
Many rattan pendant lights, hay hang from the ceiling.Traditional and simple lighting....
Lighting Design

The Best Ways to Style Rattan Pendant Lighting in Your Home

Rattan pendant lights create a rustic and breezy feel, and are an easy way to incorporate this hot trend into your home decor.
Earth day 2022...

How Are You Celebrating Earth Day 2022? | 4 Simple Ways to Celebrate Earth Day and Protect the Environment

Earth Day is a great time to reflect on how we can be more environmentally conscious. Here are some tips for celebrating Earth Day.
Get Money Online...

More Ways to Get Money Online Right Now in Your Spare Time

Here are 4 easy ways that you can get more money online if you have some free time and want to make a little extra on the side.
Lighting trends 2022...

Lighting Trends 2022 | 5 Beautiful Home Lighting Trends You Can Expect to See this Year and Beyond

This is where you can see the latest lighting trends for 2022 straight from the Lightovation Show at the Dallas World Trade Center.
What Can't You Throw Away in the Trash...

What Can’t You Throw Away in the Trash? | 5 Things You Shouldn’t Throw in to Your Trash Can

What can't you throw away in the trash? Believe it or not, there are actually many items that shouldn't be thrown straight into the trash.
US Forest Service admits errors in routine prescribed burn that sparked largest fire in NM history