US Forest Service admits ‘multiple miscalculations’ caused New Mexico fire | New Mexico

U.S. Forest Service employees made multiple miscalculations, used inaccurate models and underestimated drought conditions in the Southwest, prompting planned burning to reduce the threat of wildfires to explode in the most largest fire in New Mexico’s recorded history, the agency said. Tuesday.

The agency quietly released an 80-page review that details planning errors and conditions on the ground when crews started the directed fire in early April. The report says officials who planned the operation underestimated the amount of wood and vegetation available to fuel the flames, the exceptionally dry conditions and the rural villages and water supplies that would be at risk if things were going badly.

Within hours of starting a test fire that day in April, several spot fires were reported outside the containment lines and there were not enough resources or water to bring them under control.

“The devastating impact of this fire on the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico has demanded this level of scrutiny to ensure that we understand how this tragic event unfolded,” wrote the American chief forester Randy Moore. “I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals.”

As of Tuesday, the blaze had charred more than 533 square miles (1,380 km2), making it the largest blaze to burn this spring in the United States. It comes in a particularly fierce season in which fire danger in overgrown forests in the west has reached historic levels due to decades of drought and warmer weather brought on by the climate crisis.

The number of acres burned so far this year is more than two and a half times the national average for the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far, 31,000 wildfires have burned more than 5,000 square miles (12,950 km2) in the United States.

Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire drifts over Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak Fire drifts over Las Vegas, New Mexico. Photograph: Robert Browman/AP

Anger and frustration are simmering among residents and elected officials in northern New Mexico, where several hundred homes have been destroyed and thousands of residents displaced.

Many mountainsides were reduced to ashes and once towering ponderosa pines were turned into charred toothpicks. Places considered sacred by the families of herders and farmers who have inhabited the region for generations have been wiped out.

U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández called the Forest Service review incredibly disturbing, pointing to multiple errors in the calculations that went into planning the prescribed burn.

“Forest Service failures have destroyed many wealthy and proud New Mexico communities,” she said in a statement. “The rains could cause a second catastrophic flood. As the report notes, the Forest Service has endangered many homes, communities, lives, historic sites and watersheds.

The report said the crew believed they were within approved limits for the planned burn and had a plan to construct a line where they could check the progress of the fire and cease ignitions if parameters were exceeded.

But the fire was burning in much drier conditions than the crew thought, according to the forest service’s analysis of fuel and weather information.

“Persistent drought, limited snow and rain, fine fuel accumulation, and fuel loading from combustion unit preparation all contributed to increased risk of escape,” the report said.

A combination of spot weather forecasts and on-site observations were the only meteorological data collection methods used. The days leading up to the ignition of the directed fire were described as a “weather rollercoaster”, and the agency said more data should have been used to assess the conditions.

The report also says officials failed to accurately assess the complexity of the predicted fire, providing a picture that the risks had been reduced when in fact that was not the case.

President Joe Biden recently flew over the fire and briefly stopped in New Mexico to assure residents that the federal government would take responsibility for its role in the blaze.

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