Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo says it was a “mindblow” that forest officials started the Hermits Peak Fire via a controlled burn gone wrong on a windy day in early April. Learning last week the Calf Canyon Fire erupted after a U.S. Forest Service “sleeper fire” in January was a second mindblow to the mayor and others.
We now know the Forest Service caused both the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, which have merged in the Las Vegas area to become the largest wildfire in state history.
Mayor Trujillo, who lost a second home in Pendaries Village and a family cabin in Gallinas, called the news “shocking,” “impactful” and “disconcerting.” That’s why an independent investigation is essential to determine whether protocols were followed, and if so, how those protocols should be changed.
We hope the governor, attorney general and congressional delegation are on this. New Mexicans need to know how the federal agency responsible for managing 20 million acres of forest and grasslands in New Mexico and Arizona, 2,750 miles of streams, 37,900 acres of lakes and 25% of New Mexico’s fishing habitat could appear so incompetent
“… It also makes me wonder if the federal government should step forward and make it good,” Trujillo says.
Yes, and in no uncertain terms.
The Calf Canyon Fire was the result of a Forest Service “pile fire” that was ignited in January and continued to burn underground until it reignited above ground on April 9. The “pile” was made up of natural debris the Forest Service had cleared from an area. Days before, the Hermits Peak Fire escaped containment. Both were initially Forest Service “controlled” burns, leading agency head Randy Moore to put a 90-day pause on prescribed burns across the nation starting May 20.
The massive combined fire has destroyed at least 344 homes in northeast New Mexico and sent thousands fleeing. As of Tuesday, the fire had scorched 315,627 acres in four northern New Mexico counties and was 50% contained.
And it’s not over yet, not by a long shot.
Add to the fire danger threats of landslides and flash flooding below burn scars, like the mudslides that destroyed Dixon’s Apple Orchard after the Las Conchas Fire of 2011. Forest officials are also predicting ash will flow into streams, rivers and acequias, possibly overwhelming water treatment facilities and harming water quality for years to come. University of New Mexico researchers found Las Conchas Fire sent sediment and debris in the Rio Grande, affecting water supplies from the Jemez Mountains to Elephant Butte Reservoir.
We applaud the firefighting crews working feverishly to contain the devastation. The 2,900 personnel must be beyond frustrated with the Forest Service and its decisions.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich are correct that the Forest Service must take a hard look at its fire management practices in an era of climate change. But New Mexicans deserve more: answers and solid assurances of steps being taken so this never occurs again.
Meanwhile, it was heartening to see the photos and videos of Mora High School students using the Governor’s Mansion for their prom. Many were forced to flee their homes by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Opening the mansion to them was a class act, and community members chipped in with prom dresses, tuxedos and corsages.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also on the right track allowing residents of Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties to apply for federal disaster assistance even before returning home or obtaining insurance adjustor information. FEMA says it may be months before everyone can go to whatever is left of home.
Even though the Forest Service had the best of intentions, it is now clear it is responsible for both fires that are devastating so much of northern New Mexico. And even if an independent investigation reveals officials did everything right, victims need help far beyond a prom, and now. The feds must take full responsibility and make this right.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.