New Mexico wildfire sparked by Forest Service after pressure to burn

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The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfire burns near Las Vegas, New Mexico, U.S. May 4, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt

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June 22 (Reuters) – Pressure to meet objectives may have led the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico to ignore risks posed by a controlled burn that sparked the state’s largest wildfire, an agency review found.

Increased prescribed fire goals from U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore and demands from local managers created “unrealistic expectations” and “acceptance of unforeseen risk” around the April 6 burn east of Santa Fe, the study said.

Moore ordered the review, released on Tuesday, and a 90-day-pause to prescribed burns to see what lessons could be learned from the disaster.

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The study found the burn was lit “under much drier conditions than recognized” during a decades-long drought.

It quickly ran out of control, later merging with another blaze started by the USFS, torching 341,000 acres and destroying 432 homes in mountain communities.

“District fire employees perceived pressure to ‘accomplish the mission,’ which may have led to taking greater risk,” according to the review .

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure act earmarked $3 billion toward reducing wildfire risk and quadrupled the area some USFS regions must burn and thin, the report said.

Poorly trained and equipped USFS employees in New Mexico focused on complying with agency policy rather than adapting burn plans to changing environmental conditions, it said.

In a statement accompanying the review, Moore blamed the fire on climate change.

“Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes are challenging our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to combat destructive fires,” he said.

The blaze has further strained relations between New Mexico communities and the USFS, which over a century ago occupied vast common lands once held by Indo-Hispano villages.

“The lack of apology, the lack of recognition that forest management has taken a wrong turn in this country is the real crisis hear,” said Antonia Roybal-Mack, a lawyer from the area preparing to represent residents in a possible lawsuit against the USFS.

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Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Donna Bryson and Lisa Shumaker

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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