SANTA FE – Federal authorities confirmed Friday they are investigating how three firefighters battling the largest blaze burning in the U.S. were injured – one of them seriously – when a helicopter dropped part of a load of water on them.
It happened last weekend in northern New Mexico as a team of firefighters was working along the fire’s perimeter. They were among the more than 3,000 people assigned to the fire, which has been burning for nearly two months.
An initial report from the Bureau of Land Management stated that the hotshot crew was holding a section of fire line around 10:30 a.m. in the Pecos Wilderness last Sunday as helicopters dropped water on the fire’s edge.
“When a helicopter missed the identified drop area, the last of the load was delivered on top of several crew members,” the report states.
Two received minor injuries and the third underwent several surgeries at an Albuquerque hospital to repair skull fractures and a broken kneecap.
The Bureau of Land Management confirmed Friday that an investigation was underway, but declined to release any other information.
The blaze was the result of two government-planned burns aimed at clearing the forest of overgrown and dead vegetation. It destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate from numerous rural villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe.
President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration last month and plans to visit the state next week, but the fire has still fueled much criticism from residents and top elected officials in New Mexico.
The U.S. Forest Service vowed to conduct its own investigation and has since halted prescribed fire operations on all national forest lands while the agency conducts a review of protocols, decision-making tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., on Friday called for an independent investigation by the Government Accountability Office of the process used when conducting prescribed fires. She said she’s hopeful that recommendations will be made to improve community involvement when it comes to forest management.
Leger Fernández said she wants to ensure that no other community in the U.S. suffers the destruction that her constituents have seen.
“Clearly, (the U.S. Forest Service) needs to enact substantive reforms to ensure accountability and restore trust in their use of prescribed burns to protect our forests,” she said in a statement.