Feds caused Calf Canyon Fire - Albuquerque Journal

Feds caused Calf Canyon Fire

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burns in the mountains near Pecos on Thursday May 26, 2022. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)


In this May 23 photo, forests along N.M. 518 in Mora County that were burned by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Santa Fe National Forest officials said Friday that the Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a pile burn in January. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

As the Hermits Peak Fire was closing in on homes in Pendaries Village and San Ignacio in early April, fire managers made a fateful call.

Nearby, fire crews were monitoring the 1.5-acre Calf Canyon Fire, which stemmed from a pile burn started by the U.S. Forest Service months earlier that had reignited. Supervisors called them away from the small blaze to protect structures in the path of the growing Hermits Peak Fire.

“Fire managers were comfortable with conditions on the ground and felt the resources could be a big help on the Hermits Peak Fire,” a Forest Service spokeswoman said.

But, within days, the unmonitored Calf Canyon Fire escaped containment lines and exploded, merging with the Hermits Peak Fire.

The wildfire has since become the largest in state history, burning hundreds of homes in northeast New Mexico and sending thousands fleeing.

On Friday, the Forest Service acknowledged that it initially started both fires as prescribed burns – a way to mitigate the kind of uncontrolled burning and destruction that ironically has come to pass.

“The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service – an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands – is unfathomable,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement on Friday in reaction to the Forest Service announcement.

The massive blaze, as of Friday evening, was 313,230 acres and 48% contained as more than 2,900 personnel continue to fight the blaze. At least 761 structures have been destroyed in the fire and, of those, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 344 homes have been lost.

The incident led U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore to put a 90-day pause on prescribed burns across the country after meeting with Lujan Grisham in Washington, D.C., last week.

‘Sleeper fire’ sparked into blaze

Julie Anne Overton, a Santa Fe National Forest Service spokeswoman, said the Gallinas Canyon Wildland Urban Interface pile burn in January was done in phases.

“When we plan to do any prescribed burn, if conditions are not within the burn plan’s parameters, we do not implement the burn,” she said.

Overton said crews finished the pile burn on Jan. 29, checked the area two days later and “found everything in good shape.” Then, it snowed several inches, again and again, and the months passed.

On April 9, days after the Las Dispensas prescribed burn escaped containment and became the Hermits Peak Fire, smoke was reported near the pile burn. Crews returned to find the pile burn had remained dormant beneath the ground. The “sleeper fire” sparked into a 1.5-acre blaze.

Officials named it the Calf Canyon Fire, set containment lines and began to monitor it.

Overton said they don’t often see monthslong sleeper fires here, noting that they are more common in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, where thick layer of duff, ground matter such as pine needles, can smolder for long periods.

She said the crews monitoring Calf Canyon for any “heat or flames near the edge” left to help protect structures and homes in the path of the Hermits Peak Fire.

On April 19, the Calf Canyon Fire escaped containment lines and more than 100 firefighters from Hermits Peak were called in to fight it. Three days later, gusty winds helped the blaze explode and combine with Hermits Peak Fire.

The fire has since wreaked havoc across hundreds of thousands of acres, torching rural communities, but sparing Las Vegas from similar destruction – although many residents were forced to flee their homes as officials cleared the jail and the state’s largest behavioral health facility.

Taking a ‘hard look’ at practices

SFNF supervisor Debbie Cress said in a statement Friday that the agency is “100% focused” on suppressing the fires with the support of the thousands of firefighters who are “fully prepared to manage complex, all-risk situations.”

“Our commitment is to manage the public lands entrusted to us by improving the forest’s resilience to the many stressors they are facing, including larger, hotter wildfires, historic levels of drought, rising temperatures, and insects and disease,” she said.

Lujan Grisham said Friday that the Forest Service’s admission marked “a first step” toward the federal government taking full responsibility for the blaze, which, aside from the personal toll, has cost state and local governments millions of dollars. Fire suppression costs to date on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire exceed $132 million.

“I appreciate the U.S. Forest Service assuming responsibility for the federal actions that caused this terrible crisis,” she said, adding that the agency must “take a hard look at their fire management practices and make sure they account for a rapidly changing climate.”

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo had trouble finding the words on Friday. But “shocking,” “impactful” and “disconcerting” came to mind.

“To think that both of these fires were caused by something the federal government did was a second mindblow to me,” he told the Journal. “… It also makes me wonder if the federal government should step forward and make it good.”

Fire operations section chief Alex McBath said high winds this weekend could cause burned areas to flare up again.

“For those places that have been repopulated … just keep in mind you are in a fire footprint and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe,” McBath said.

The blaze’s west side could grow significantly on Saturday, said fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner. Winds of 25 mph with gusts of 40 mph are possible.

“We are squarely back into fire weather once again – high winds, low humidity,” Turner said.

Trujillo said his primary concern has now fallen to the fate of the city’s watershed and possible flooding in the wake of the fire’s destruction.

“We’ve begun to look at the recovery process and how that’s going to take shape, how are we going to keep our lifeline of water safe?” he said, adding that, hours earlier, they visited the burn scars along the watershed with U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and the state Legislative Finance Committee.

Trujillo said “there’s a little bit of anger in all of us” spurred by the damage and devastation wrought by the blazes.

“There will be plenty of time for finger-pointing and blaming. What we have to do as a community is to embrace this news, to move forward positively so that we can overcome some of our challenges that we are facing,” he said.

Trujillo has felt the loss personally, losing a second home in Pendaries Village – decades of memories – and his family’s cabin in Gallinas. It was named “Cabana Consuelito” after his mother, and was where the family gathered for weddings, birthdays and reunions.

Trujillo said he can’t bring himself to visit the devastation, and the loss makes him feel deeply for those who’ve lost their only homes, some who spent generations selling wood or Christmas trees to build a life.

“All the people up in the country that depended on the land to live,” Trujillo said. “… In Spanish, it’s called herencia, which means you’re an heir to this sacred property. It’s been in the family for years and years and years, and generations. It’s not just a loss of sticks and nails, it’s a loss of our culture, of the people who we are.”

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