SANTA FE, New Mexico — Two fires that coalesced to create the largest wildfire in New Mexico history have both been attributed to planned burns by U.S. forest managers as a precaution, federal investigators said Friday.
The findings shift blame more squarely to the US Forest Service for triggering a natural disaster that destroyed at least 330 homes as flames raged through nearly 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of pine forests and high altitude grasslands. The wildfire also displaced thousands of residents of rural villages with Spanish colonial roots and high poverty rates, while causing untold environmental damage.
About 3,000 firefighters, along with water-dropping planes and helicopters, continue to battle the blaze as they approach hill stations and Native American communities. Firefighting costs already top $132 million, climbing $5 million a day.
Firefighters and law enforcement issued a cautious but hopeful progress report on Friday night, with fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner noting that they need to monitor so-called ‘red flag’ conditions – weather hot and dry with strong winds – from Saturday.
“Weather is a big concern for us,” Turner acknowledged, saying even a stray pinecone rolling down a slope and crossing a line of control could spread flames. “The red flag warning is a big message for tomorrow.”
He said dry conditions are expected through Tuesday, but humidity and even thunderstorms are possible from Wednesday.
Deputy Teresa Leger Fernández described a growing sense of outrage as the fire triggers further evacuations of families and livestock. Fear of flames gives way to worries about erosion and mudslides where the superheated fire penetrates the ground and roots.
“The destruction caused by these two fires is immeasurable and will be felt for generations,” said Leger Fernández, sponsor of a bill that would reimburse residents and businesses routed by the blaze.
The Forest Service has yet to release detailed planning documents for the original planned burns that could indicate whether fire protocols were followed.
Scientists and forest managers are racing to develop new tools to predict the behavior of planned fires amid climate change and persistent drought in the American West. Intentionally started fires, known as prescribed burns, aim to limit the accumulation of wood and undergrowth which, if left unchecked, can fuel extremely hot and destructive wildfires.
The Biden administration announced in January a $50 billion plan to avert catastrophic wildfires that would more than double the use of planned fires and logging to reduce trees and other vegetation that serve as tinder in the areas most at risk. Prescribed burns are often used in wilderness areas that are too large to be thinned by hand or machine.
The two fires east of Santa Fe joined in April to form the massive fire at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range.
One of the fires had previously been traced to April 6, when a planned burn, started by firefighters to clear small trees and brush, was declared out of control.
On Friday, investigators said they had tracked the source of the second blaze to the remnants of a planned winter blaze that lay dormant through several snowstorms only to flare up again last month.
Investigators said the prescribed “pile burn” was started in January in Gallinas Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and ended in the final days of this month. A fire was reported again in the same area on April 9 and spiraled out of control 10 days later in dry, hot and windy conditions, Forest Service investigators found.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, in a statement, called the results of the investigation “a first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility” for the New Mexico wildfire. She highlighted her pending request to President Joe Biden to order the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay 100% of costs related to a wide range of recovery efforts.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week announced a 90-day pause and review of protocols for planned fires that limit the buildup of flammable vegetation. He cited extreme fire danger and inclement weather and did not specifically link the review to the New Mexico fires.
“It will also ensure that the national prescribed burn program is grounded in the most contemporary science, policy, practice and decision-making processes, and that employees, partners and communities have the support they need. need to continue to use this essential tool to deal with the wildfire crisis. “, the agency said in a statement on Friday.
Moore said prescribed fires go as planned more than 99% of the time. Notable exceptions include the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 which swept through national security facilities and residential neighborhoods in Los Alamos.
So-called pile burns can often include wild debris collected over months or even years. Forest managers cut down trees and mound debris, preferring to burn forest fuels in the winter when planned burns are easier to control.
In January, workers at the Santa Fe National Forest began burning a series of piles over an area of 0.6 square miles (1.5 square kilometers), after warning the public of potential smoke hazards.
Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.