The United States Forest Service (USFS) says that it was responsible for setting two wildfires that merged to form a single, devastating fire, destroying 1,500 square miles of New Mexico forests.
The USFS occasionally uses “controlled burns” to reduce the risk of larger fires but, in this case, the plan backfired. The Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a “burn pile” of branches that the USFS believed had gone out but had reignited.
That fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which also began as a “controlled burn” but went out of control.
Investigators have yet to see planning documents for the controlled burns which might offer clues about whether proper procedures were followed.
The findings shift responsibility more squarely toward the U.S. Forest Service for initiating a natural disaster that has destroyed at least 330 homes as flames raged through nearly 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of high-altitude pine forests and meadows. The wildfire also has displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while unleashing untold environmental damage.
Roughly 3,000 firefighters, along with water-dropping planes and helicopters, continue to fight the blaze as it approaches mountain resorts and Native American communities. Firefighting costs already surpass $132 million, climbing by $5 million a day.
The “controlled burns” that led directly to these fires are very unpredictable given wind and weather. So why does the Biden administration want $50 billion to stave off catastrophic wildfires that would more than double the use of controlled fires and allow commercial logging in areas previously off-limits to the chain saws?
The environmental devastation is equally catastrophic. But could it have been avoided? The controlled burns at Hermits Peak escaped containment.
In New Mexico, that fear has become a reality this year. After the Hermits Peak fire escaped its containment lines, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a suspension of all planned fires on national forest lands while the agency reviews its practices.
The review “will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation,” Moore said in a statement.
Moore said that in 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned and are “essential tools” to protect communities. But he allowed that, in rare circumstances, they can and have escaped control and become wildfires.
Wildfires are bad enough, but actually planning on them should give us pause — especially when it only takes one to get out of control and cause massive damage.
Burning stray brush and branches is a good idea. But burning several square miles of forest might need a second look.