What went wrong in the prescribed burn that turned into Hermits Peak wildfire?

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NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The U.S. Forest Service released an 85-page review detailing what went wrong in the prescribed burn that later became the Hermits Peak wildfire. The post-fire investigation revealed that “the implementation was occurring under much drier conditions than were recognized.”

The Hermits Peak Fire started on April 6. The Calf Canyon Fire started on April 19. On April 23, officials announced that the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires had been combined. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is now more than 341,000 acres and 72% contained.

In a release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said the review was necessary in order to “understand how this tragic event unfolded.” He also added: “Wildfire mitigation, wildland firefighting, and many other land management activities we perform are inherently dangerous. When that work does not go as planned, it is imperative that we learn from those experiences.”

According to a timeline in the review, a burn boss determined that a test-fire the morning of April 6 was successful. Crews then begin igniting the prescribed burn. However, four hours later the fire was declared a wildfire.

According to the report, the “combination of changes in fuel conditions, underestimated potential fire behavior outside the burn unit and condition the prescribed fire on the warmer and drier end of the prescription, led to an increased probability of an escaped prescribed fire, if the burn spread beyond the unit boundary.”

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire has turned into New Mexico’s largest wildfire in state history.

The report also listed some findings that could have led to a different outcome:

  • Ensure that Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWs) are properly maintained and operational, in order to monitor trends in Fire Danger indices.
  • More accurate real-time weather observations could have improved situational awareness.
  • Recognition of increased fine fuel loadings from canopy-opening thinning (fine fuels) and 2021 monsoons and from fireline preparation (heavy fuels) contributed to higher fire intensities, torching, spotting, and higher resistance-to-control.
  • Low foliar fuel moistures facilitated the transition from surface fire to torching and spotting outside the unit boundaries. Needed context to highlight fuel moisture level concerns.
  • Underestimated fire potential leading up to the prescribed fire. ERC (Energy Release Component) was mentioned in Element 9 of the prescribed fire plan to be monitored, but needed context todescribe how this NFDRS element would be used.
  • Underestimation of minimum holding and contingency resources.
  • Last year’s monsoonal moisture (2021), and late season (winter/spring 2022) snowpack and moisture, did little to ameliorate the magnitude and spatial extent of the ongoing drought.

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