Editorial: Forest Service must take its missteps and health of our forests to heart - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Forest Service must take its missteps and health of our forests to heart

An 85-page U.S. Forest Service review of the origins of the Hermits Peak Fire suggests the biggest wildfire in state history was caused in large part by a breakdown in protocols. But the review also revealed a troubling culture problem within the service.

The review conducted by the Forest Service itself said a local team faced pressure to “accomplish the mission,” possibly leading to the crew to take greater risks in a rush to catch up on prescribed burns after postponements in many burn projects due to the COVID-19 pandemic and litigation.

The desire to mitigate wildfire threat through prescribed burns is understandable — even commendable. But it is far from acceptable to ignore protocols aimed at keeping the forest safe — and any culture that promotes that needs changing.

The report says the local team made a series of mistakes including relying too much on regional weather forecasts instead of on-the-ground observations, underestimating how dry the Santa Fe National Forest was, and then failing to ensure sufficient water resources and logistical support were available in case something went wrong.

The team proceeded anyway on April 6 with the prescribed burn west of Las Vegas, New Mexico, when faced with a narrow window for the project.

The review noted crews thinned fuels along control lines prior to the burn, but found that fuels outside the burn boundary were extremely likely to ignite and create spot fires. Prep work may have in fact worsened the potential for a runaway wildfire with natural debris “concentrated fuels into jackpots.”

The Las Dispensas prescribed burn fire soon escaped project boundaries and turned into the Hermits Peak Fire, which merged in late April with the Calf Canyon Fire to become the largest wildfire in state history. And where were the firefighting crews tasked with helping out if the burn jumped its containment lines? They were nearly two hours away at a fire training summit in Taos.

The combined fire has destroyed at least 400 homes, forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate their properties across several northern New Mexico counties, cost more than $248 million in firefighting expenses, taken an unknown toll on wildlife, livestock, pets and irreplaceable family treasures and burned more than 341,000 acres.

And the calamity isn’t over yet as communities below burn scars prepare for likely landslides and flash flooding. The Forest Service, which manages almost a third of the state’s forested lands and 25% of our fishing habitat, predicts ash will flow into streams, rivers and acequias, possibly overwhelming water treatment facilities and harming water quality for years to come.

The Forest Service has conceded it also created the Calf Canyon Fire, a result of a “pile fire” in January that smoldered underground for months despite snowstorms and freezing temperatures and resurfaced above ground on April 9.

As the Hermits Peak Fire was closing in on homes in Pendaries Village and San Ignacio, fire crews monitoring the Calf Canyon Fire were ordered by Forest Service supervisors to leave that small blaze to protect structures in the path of the growing Hermits Peak Fire.

Fuels for potential wildfires have been growing for years due to forest land mismanagement in part a result of litigation over the Mexican spotted owl. And everyone in New Mexico from Las Cruces to Taos knows how windy it gets in April.

The report contains important lessons regarding protocols, but it also pointed out that the Gallinas Watershed Prescribed Fire Plan was prepared in 2019 and approved in October 2021. It was not updated despite the extremely dry conditions exacerbated by a dry winter.

Recommendations for preventing future catastrophic prescribed burns include strengthening employee feedback methods and ensuring that multiple perspectives support the test fire and ultimate burn decision.

The Forest Service needs to better involve local officials before any prescribed burn on federal lands. Shifting winds in the burn area should have been observed with local instruments instead of relying on wind predictions from the National Weather Service.

Several remote weather stations in the burn area malfunctioned or had data gaps in the weeks leading up to the project and radio communication was spotty or nonexistent between project leaders. The review even found it was difficult to determine who was present on the burn because of incomplete records.

The review touts prescribed fires as “the most ecologically appropriate, and often the most economical” tool for maintaining healthy forest ecosystems, but it fails to address how the Forest Service has allowed our forests to degrade with policies that have limited the collection of firewood and grazing, creating a tinderbox. More local input and involvement would help to better manage our forests.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she’s “deeply frustrated by the numerous missteps” identified in the review, while U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who represents the burned area, called the findings “incredibly disturbing.” They’re both right. The governor notes it doesn’t appear anyone involved in the prescribed burn “was held to account for the significant mistakes made during this burn.”

One silver lining of the review is that it comes promptly. The Forest Service could have investigated the Hermits Peak Fire for years, but it didn’t. We hope the promptness of the report is a sign that lessons will be learned and applied quickly.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has commissioned its own investigation. That’s good. We need an independent investigation to ensure local Forest Service officials have the authority to call the train back to the station next time an imprudent burn is about to take place, especially in an era of megadrought, erratic spring winds and climate change.

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.

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