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MORA, NM — It all started small, with a team of federal employees using drip torches to ignite a prescribed burn in the Santa Fe National Forest, aimed at thinning dense pine forests.

But as April winds howled through the mountains of dry and brittle northern New Mexico, pushing the fire beyond its borders and soon on the path to another out-of-control prescribed burn, it became the one of the most destructive errors of the US Forest Service. in decades.

The resulting merger of these two burns, called the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire, now ranks as the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history. Still burning in an area of ​​more than 341,000 acres – larger than the city of Los Angeles – the blaze has destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of people in an area where Hispanic villagers have settled there centuries ago.

The painful losses created a backlash against the Forest Service and provided a critical test case for how authorities respond when a prescribed burn goes awry.

“I hope those responsible for this catastrophic failure don’t sleep at night,” said Meg Sandoval, 65, whose family moved to the area in the 1840s. She now lives in a motorhome after that his home in Tierra Monte was destroyed by fire.

“They ruined the lives of thousands of people,” she said.

Credit…Minesh Bacrania for The New York Times

With patience in New Mexico, the stakes are high. Drought and climate change have turned the western United States into a powder keg, bringing more destructive wildfires of all kinds. Building on ancient fire management practices, federal and state authorities are establishing prescribed burns in forests where natural fires have been suppressed for decades, trying to thin out a buildup of vegetation that can fuel disastrous fires. .

The Forest Service, which already conducts about 4,500 prescribed fires each year, wants to aggressively scale up operations nationwide. President Biden’s infrastructure program includes $5 billion for wildfire measures, including removing combustible flora and increasing firefighter salaries.

But as forest managers lose control of some of the fires they start, public backlash is intensifying.

On May 20, after the New Mexico Fire exploded, Randy Moore, head of the U.S. Forest Service, announced a 90-day pause in prescribed fire operations on National Forest Lands, giving officials time to study the program and how it was carried out. .

During an internal review of the burn conducted on April 6, Forest Service investigators found that fire managers had followed a plan within approved limits. But subsequent analysis of weather and vegetation conditions showed “the directed fire was burning in much drier conditions than they thought”.

The review, expected to be released this week, described a chaotic sequence of events in which nearby automated weather stations went offline, National Weather Service forecasts were used instead of relying on “l ‘local expertise’ to understand the variable wind conditions, and relative humidity dropped ‘well below’ the expected range.

The investigation also found that firefighters “did not cease ignitions or suppress directed fire after clear indications of high fire intensity”, and that some were using radio frequency which made them inaccessible on several occasions. District fire department employees also perceived pressure to “get the job done,” which may have led to greater risk-taking, the review found.

Despite these issues, Moore defended the mission in an interview, calling prescribed burns crucial to reducing the threat of extreme wildfires. In 99.84% of cases, he said, the burns go as planned.

“But this 0.16% that is escaping, we are living it now,” acknowledged Mr. Moore. “Whenever there is a lack of trust, it takes time to rebuild it. Words don’t build that trust. Actions build that trust.

Credit…Minesh Bacrania for The New York Times
Credit…Minesh Bacrania for The New York Times

During a brief visit to New Mexico this month, President Biden sought to allay some of the concerns. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would cover 100% of the cost of temporary housing and clean-up within the first 90 days after wildfire damage, up from the standard 75%. FEMA distributed about $3.4 million to about 1,000 families, the agency said.

Mr Biden also expressed support for a bill to create a fund to cover losses from the fire, money seen as crucial in a place where much of the destroyed property was uninsured. . But he warned that such a move would likely need the help of Republicans in the Senate. The office of Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a Democrat who represents the fire-stricken northern New Mexico region in Congress, said she welcomes the administration’s moves to increase federal aid and to take action. to mitigate potential flooding in National Forests, which is critical in the Southwest. the monsoon season begins, bringing the danger of floods and mudslides to the fire-scarred landscape.

But like many of her constituents, Ms. Leger Fernández said she was furious to learn that the Forest Service started the two fires. “How could you make the same mistake twice in the same neighborhood?” she asked.

Tanya Kwan Simmons, whose home in the village of Cleveland was destroyed, said the insurance was to cover a small fraction of her family’s losses, related to mortgage payments and other liabilities. “The bank will get their money and then we’ll be left with a piece of useless dirt,” said Ms Kwan Simmons, 53.

Her insurance company said she and her husband had to rebuild on the same land, she said, “which is a joke based on the destruction and the real threat of flooding.”

Along with other New Mexico lawmakers in Congress, Ms. Leger Fernández has proposed legislation to more fully compensate fire victims. But she said her bill was unlikely to move forward in both chambers on its own, although it could potentially be included in other legislation.

Credit…Minesh Bacrania for The New York Times

The uncertainty contrasts with the response to a fire in 2000 that was started by the National Park Service and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos, NM FEMA quickly distributed cash to the victims in addition to emergency relief Normals, and Democrats and Republicans in New Mexico’s congressional delegation quickly won bipartisan support for a law that would allow for extensive compensation for fire victims.

Los Alamos, one of the wealthiest cities in the West, has a large number of residents with PhDs who work on the nation’s nuclear arsenal and receive high salaries from the national laboratory; some of the communities upended by this year’s fire are among the poorest places in New Mexico.

Antonia Roybal-Mack, an Albuquerque attorney, was an aide to Pete Domenici, a Republican senator known for his bipartisanship, at the time of the Los Alamos fire. She said today’s polarizing politics could prevent similar aid from passing through the Senate, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Ms. Roybal-Mack grew up in the area burned by this year’s wildfire. She said her family could have sold her father’s 360-acre ranch for several million dollars before the prescribed burns got out of control. “Now it’s worth nothing,” she said.

Aware of the difficulty many people in New Mexico may have obtaining compensation, Ms. Roybal-Mack is laying the groundwork for a mass tort case against the forest service.

Credit…Minesh Bacrania for The New York Times
Credit…Minesh Bacrania for The New York Times

Mr Moore, the head of the Forest Service, declined to provide specific information on what his agency, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, could do to compensate the victims. The USDA, he said, was working as “one department” to see how it could provide assistance.

The 90-day pause on prescribed burns ordered by Mr Moore, along with the scrutiny of such operations, has some wildfire experts fearing they will be sidelined – which could end by producing even more colossal fires in areas where vegetation is overgrown.

“We shouldn’t necessarily consider the one that got away, even if it was destructive and massive, as a reason to end all prescribed burning,” said Rebecca Miller, postdoctoral fellow at the West on Fire project at the University. University of Southern California.

But even some advocates of forest thinning blame this latest tragedy on longstanding Forest Service policies.

Patrick Dearen has written a book about the Pecos River, whose headwaters are threatened by the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak fire. He noted that in the 1890s, the forest around the river that is now designated as state forest consisted mostly of “old burns”, along with grasslands, open parklands and arid peaks.

An inventory in 1911 showed that a typical acre of ponderosa pine habitat had 50 to 60 trees. By the end of the 20th century, Mr. Dearen said, after a long national policy of natural fire suppression, that number had skyrocketed to 1,089 trees per acre.

“Nature did its job well, but no one recognized it,” Mr Dearen said. Still, if the government is to take on nature’s role in thinning forests, it must recognize its mistakes, he said.

“If an individual goes out and sets a fire on purpose and runs away, they’ll probably go to jail,” he said. “The federal government must assume its responsibilities towards the population.

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