US Forest Service admits errors in routine prescribed burn that sparked Hermits Peak Fire


A chief’s review of Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico released Tuesday found that U.S. Forest Service errors during a routine prescribed burn contributed to the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. .

A years-long backlog of projects due to department furloughs during the 2018-19 government shutdown, work-from-home complications during the Covid-19 pandemic and an injunction related to the Mexican spotted owl have all limited the Forest Service’s ability to thin trees and conduct prescribed burns in the years leading up to spring 2022, according to the report.

This series of events “created a sense of urgency to accomplish ‘catch-up’ projects,” the report said. “These expectations, coupled with the ability to implement during a narrow window when the crew was available, smoke dispersion was good, and the prescribed fire area should be as prescribed, led to the acceptance of risks unforeseen.”

A prescribed burn, or controlled burn, is intentional burning as part of a forest management plan to reduce the risk of larger, more damaging fires.

The report found that the directed fire that ultimately sparked the Hermits Peak Fire – which has burned more than 340,000 acres in three counties since April 6 and is 72% contained on Tuesday – was carried out “in accordance with standards and current policies”, but several other factors increased the likelihood of an escaped prescribed burn.

“The combination of changes in fuel conditions, underestimated potential fire behavior outside the burn unit, and directing the fire to the hotter, drier side of the prescription , led to an increased likelihood of an escaped directed fire, if the burn spread beyond the unit boundary,” the report states.

The report goes on to say that prescribed fires must remain a tool for fighting wildfires, but climate change is impacting their safe use.

“Forest fires are threatening more communities than ever before. Prescribed burning must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are reducing the windows where this tool can be used safely,” the report adds.

In a foreword to the report, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said climate change is leading to more intense and frequent wildfires and “conditions on the ground that we’ve never had before.” encountered”.

Forest Service officials said several years of drought, a limited snowpack with less than normal moisture, combined with a buildup of combustibles helped fuel the fire.

“Traditional monsoon rainfall was significantly below the historical average in 2019 and 2020,” the report said, adding that overall rainfall in 2021 was also “near to below average for the mountains of northern New Mexico.”

Additionally, the winter snowpack was well below what was needed to bring moisture back to the ground and combustibles, Forest Service officials said. The lack of snow until a heavy snowstorm in March and April amounted to what officials called a “snow drought”.

“In addition to the below-normal precipitation, the seasonal snowpack was significantly compressed, as it only started in January, then abruptly melted much earlier than average,” the report said. Although the winter weather was cold, the lack of moisture in the snow until a spring snowstorm did not help the dry conditions.

“I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals,” Moore said in the foreword. “In the most tragic events, people have lost their lives and it saddens us as agency workers who live and work in these communities.”

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