The U.S. Forest Service failed to consider how a changing climate could make the landscape more flammable, didn’t adequately estimate the risk of a controlled fire escaping and used incomplete weather information as a prescribed burn went awry and later formed the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the agency said in a report released Tuesday.
The 85-page report describes how federal fire managers, who felt under pressure to complete the prescribed burn while they had the available personnel, made miscalculations and overlooked warning signs — including low humidity, the potential for erratic winds on complex terrain and the heavy, dry fuel loads that could stoke a runaway fire.
Although crews followed the burn plan, it contained flawed and incomplete analyses, and some guidelines were out of date amid a prolonged drought, the report said.
The result: The prescribed burn ignited a wildfire that later merged with another prescribed burn to create the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, scorching 341,746 acres as of Tuesday and destroying hundreds of homes in a 500-square-mile area.
“On several occasions, both before the burn was ignited and after test fire was considered and accepted, some personnel felt that the dry conditions would result in difficult burning conditions and an increase in risk, but they accepted the assignment,” the report said.
The report, issued with a cover bearing a photo depicting a still-budding fire, describes managers wanting to do the burn while they had the people on hand. The agency doesn’t dedicate personnel just for prescribed burns and instead often uses crews that are in between fighting wildland fires — tightening the window for when these burns can be done, the report said.
Overall, managers were confident they were within the approved criteria for a controlled burn, and they had a plan to suppress the fire and cease ignitions if the parameters were exceeded, the report said.
However, a later review of fuel and weather revealed this burn was conducted under much drier conditions than were recognized, the report said.
Persistent drought, sparse winter precipitation and below-average snowpack dried the vegetation, leaves and grasses, all made thicker by the previous summer’s monsoon. That created a heavier load of “fine fuels,” the report said.
These conditions, combined with leaders underestimating how quickly the fire could spread outside the lines, increased the risk of it escaping, the report said.
The trees’ dried-out canopies became easier to ignite into crown fires, which can spit embers outside defensive lines, causing spot fires that can spread the blaze, it said.
“A clear recognition and acknowledgment of long-term drought and climate factors versus short-term weather events would have led toward better situational awareness of the fire environment and could have led to more favorable outcomes,” the report said.
In the report’s foreword, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore wrote he ordered the review in May to “ensure we understand how this tragic event unfolded.”
Crews followed correct procedures for a prescribed burn, but the playbook appears in need of adjustment in a changing climate and increasingly unpredictable weather, Moore wrote.
“Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground,” Moore wrote. “We must learn from this event and ensure our decision-making processes, tools and procedures reflect these changed conditions.
But U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a New Mexico Democrat, said the report confirms the Forest Service’s costly missteps and willingness to put communities, watersheds and residents at risk to accomplish a task that could’ve been postponed.
The agency began with an outdated burn plan crafted in 2006 for the Gallinas area, despite the past 16 years of drought significantly changing the landscape and increasing wildfire dangers, Leger Fernández said in a phone interview.
Leger Fernández said she is angered by how agency officials undervalued the communities that were put at risk — and devastated — when they pushed ahead with the prescribed burn.
In fact, they rated the communities and natural resources as having “moderate value,” she said.
“If they had assigned them high value, then they would have taken less risk,” Leger Fernandez.
Officials didn’t update the larger area plan nor the specific prescribed burn plan drafted in 2019, even though the drought continued and they had scientific data at their disposal, she said.
“Once they started from this faulty premise … then the errors cascaded down from there,” Leger Fernández said.
Leger Fernández said at her request the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, has agreed to examine the agency’s prescribed burn practices.
In late April, the Hermits Peak Fire melded with the Calf Canyon Fire, a blaze that forest officials said ignited from a “sleeper fire” that smoldered underground for months after a January pile burn.
A prescribed burn going dormant and persisting through winter snowstorms before reigniting into a wildfire was nearly unheard of until recently, Moore wrote.
“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered,” Moore wrote.
Still, the report suggests teams either overlooked or misjudged some available weather data. And it points out that two weather stations, which could have provided more accurate forecasts, were not used — one was offline and the other was deemed unreliable.
Humidity fell to 6 percent, which is below the recommended minimum of 12 percent, increasing the chance of a more intense and active fire, the report said.
The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for various fire zones but not specifically the area where the prescribed burn was to take place, the report said. Still, supervisors should not have used the broad forecasts as the sole guidance, given how variable winds can be, especially in complex terrain, the report said.
“Variable wind directions that were caused by complex terrain on the prescribed fire unit should have been considered and anticipated based on local expertise,” the report said. “Instead, there was an over-reliance on predicted winds from the National Weather Service forecasts.”
The report also says managers excluded from the prescribed burn plan that there was no on-site water source to douse a fire and that the water would have to be brought in.
Other political leaders weighed in on the report’s findings and were as critical as Leger Fernández.
“It is very difficult to understand how a plan crafted several years ago could be repeatedly re-approved without adjustments or considerations for updated drought conditions,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “In addition, it does not appear that anyone … was held to account for the significant mistakes made during this burn.”
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat, said the report clearly lays out what went wrong and how the catastrophic fire might have been avoided.
“It’s critical that the Forest Service makes improvements to their prescribed burn process to ensure a disaster like this never happens again,” he said.
Moore wrote prescribed burns are still an effective way to remove built-up fuels that can cause mammoth wildfires. Now the agency must rethink how they are done, which is why it’s conducting a 90-day review of the current practices, he added.
“Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them [wildfires],” Moore wrote. “Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely. “