US Forest Service: Prescribed burns initiated massive fire

SANTA FE, NM (AP) — Two fires that coalesced to create the largest wildfire in New Mexico history have both been attributed to prescribed burns put in place by U.S. forest managers as a precaution, federal investigators announced Friday.

The results could have implications for the future use of prescribed burning to limit the accumulation of dry vegetation as part of a US Forest Service moratorium on the practice. They could also affect complex deliberations over emergency aid and responsibility for a fire that has spread over 486 square miles (1,260 square kilometers) and destroyed hundreds of structures.

The two fires joined in April to form the Massive Fire at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

One of the fires had previously been traced to April 6, when a prescribed burn, set up by firefighters to remove small trees and brush that can fuel wildfires, was declared out of control.

On Friday, investigators said they had tracked the source of the second blaze to the remnants of a prescribed winter fire that had lain dormant through several snowstorms only to flare up again last month.

Investigators said the prescribed “pile burn” was started in January in Gallinas Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and ended in the final days of this month. A fire was reported again in the same area on April 9 and spiraled out of control 10 days later in dry, hot and windy conditions, Forest Service investigators found.

Scientists and forest managers are racing to develop new tools to predict the behavior of prescribed fires in the face of climate change and persistent drought in the American West. Prescribed fires aim to limit the accumulation of wood and undergrowth which, if left unchecked, can fuel extremely hot and destructive wildfires.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, in a statement, called the results of the investigation a “first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility” for the New Mexico wildfire. She highlighted her pending request to President Joe Biden to order the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay 100% of costs related to a wide range of recovery efforts.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week announced a 90-day pause and review of protocols for prescribed fires that limit the buildup of flammable vegetation that can lead to extremely hot and out of control wildfires. He did not specifically link the review to the fires in New Mexico.

“It will also ensure that the national prescribed burn program is grounded in the most contemporary science, policy, practice and decision-making processes, and that employees, partners and communities have the support they need. need to continue to use this essential tool to deal with the wildfire crisis. “, the agency said in a statement on Friday.

So-called pile burns can often include wild debris collected over months or even years. Forest managers cut down trees and mound debris, preferring to burn forest fuels in the winter when prescribed burns are easier to control.

In January, workers at the Santa Fe National Forest began burning a series of piles over an area of ​​0.6 square miles (1.5 square kilometers), after warning the public of potential smoke hazards.

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Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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