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Officials put a 90-day pause on prescribed burns across the country on Friday as crews continue to fight a massive blaze – partially started as a prescribed burn – that has torched hundreds of homes and sent thousands fleeing northeastern New Mexico.
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is currently at 306,472 acres and 40% contained. In 48 hours the blaze grew about 4,000 acres, paling in comparison to earlier activity.
On Friday, fire crews continued to make progress holding back the flames being fanned by gusty winds amid historic dry conditions in the state. Some cooler weather in the forecast gave officials optimism going forward.
The fire became the largest in state history days ago, leading Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to meet with U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
Within hours of that meeting, Moore put a 90-day pause on prescribed burns across the country as the agency reviews “protocols, decision support tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.”
He said prescribed burns go as planned in 99.84% of cases but “in rare circumstances” the flames can move outside the project area and turn into wildfires.
“Wildfires are increasingly extreme because of climate change, drought and dry fuels across many parts of the country,” Moore said. “Prescribed burn operations are essential tools managers need to protect communities and first responders, improve forest conditions and reduce the threat of extreme fires.”
Lujan Grisham said she was glad to hear of Moore’s decision.
“It is critical that federal agencies update and modernize these practices in response to a changing climate, as what used to be considered extreme conditions are now much more common,” she said in a released statement. “The situation unfolding in New Mexico right now demonstrates without a doubt the grave consequences of neglecting to do so.”
In recent weeks, state officials have blasted the U.S. Forest Service for proceeding with the planned prescribed burn, despite strong winds and extreme drought conditions.
Lujan Grisham said the state will work with the Forest Service to “ensure voices at the local level are heard” as the agency reviews its process concerning prescribed burns.
“As I did today, I will continue to relentlessly pursue every available avenue for resources that make affected New Mexicans whole and prevents a tragedy like this one from happening again,” she said.
The Forest Service released a statement Friday saying the agency has initiated a Declared Wildfire Review of the “decisions made and conditions on the ground” prior to the Las Dispensas prescribed fire which led to the Hermits Peak Fire.
“This review is being conducted to glean lessons learned and help improve the prescribed fire program,” the statement read.
Meanwhile, officials were making headway on containing the blaze despite bad weather.
Jason Coil, operations section chief, said crews have done an “incredible job” holding the containment of the fire. He said a small spot fire sprouted to the northwest of the blaze, leading to some evacuations nearby, but firefighters were going to focus on snuffing it.
“Nothing makes me feel better than making Stewart’s models incorrect,” Coil said, referring to Fire Behavior Analyst Stewart Turner’s earlier predictions that the fire would likely grow significantly Friday.
Turner said “things are looking really good” weather-wise for the next several days. The weather chart – measuring levels of moisture, heat and wind – had most of its reds and oranges replaced by green, signifying an end to critical fire weather.
Turner said cloud cover and humidity will move into the area Saturday and he expected a lot of containment to come out of the opportunity.