Report Describes Mistakes That Caused New Mexico Fire

The report may help prevent future disasters, but NM is still burning
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 22, 2022 2:48 PM CDT
Forest Service Details Mistakes That Led to New Mexico Fire
The Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire burns in the mountains near Pecos, N.M., on Thursday May 25, 2022. The U.S. Forest Service released a report on June 22, 2022, detailed a series of mistakes and miscalculations that caused prescribed burns to get out of control.   (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP,File)

(Newser) – It started as two prescribed fires that merged, and now the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak fire is the largest in New Mexico’s recorded history. In late May, officials with the US Forest Service admitted that the fire was their fault, and on Tuesday, "the agency quietly posted" a report detailing a host of mistakes, miscalculations, and poor planning that fueled the disaster, per the Guardian. According to the report, fire personnel underestimated the effects of the region’s long-term drought and the amount of parched timber and vegetation on the ground. They also failed to adjust for weather conditions, per the New York Times, which reports that—because nearby weather stations were offline—planners relied on National Weather Service forecasts rather than "local expertise," which could have informed them about the exceptionally low humidity and erratic winds that fanned the flames.

Personnel "did not cease ignitions or suppress the prescribed fire after clear indications of high-fire intensity," the report states. The fire has so far scorched more than 533 square miles and hundreds of homes, and a new disaster looms as the monsoon season approaches a charred landscape vulnerable to flooding and mudslides. US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a New Mexico Democrat, was one of many to voice alarm and anger, saying the Forest Service "did not value the resources, the communities, the historic nature of these communities, and so they went forward allowing more risk than they should have."

While Forest Service chief Randy Moore wrote that he "cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals," he also defended the practice of controlled burns, saying 99.84% go as planned, but the ones that get away lead to a breach of trust that’s hard to rebuild. Per CBS News, President Biden recently visited the area and assured residents that the federal government would take responsibility. "We will be here for you in response and recovery for as long as it takes," he said. However, as the Times notes, that promise may be hard to keep in the current political climate. (Read more New Mexico stories.)

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