Cerro Grande fire expert: Feds doing a prescribed burn in spring ‘extremely risky’

A murky liability fight lays ahead in parsing which fire did what

By: - May 4, 2022 2:40 pm

The combined Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burns north of Las Vegas, N.M., on April 23, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

The guy who literally wrote the book on the destructive Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico said federal officials ignored the notorious blaze’s lessons when they decided to ignite a prescribed burn on a windy April day this year, sparking what’s now known as the Hermits Peak fire. 

“It’s clear that it was an extremely risky time to do that, given that the fuels are so dry this year, given the way the winter was, and given the way springs are always windy here,” said Tom Ribe, author of “Inferno by Committee: A history of the Cerro Grande Fire.”

Cerro Grande began as a prescribed burn set May 4, 2000, and unexpected high winds quickly carried it out of control. The blaze ultimately destroyed hundreds of Los Alamos homes and caused $1 billion in damage. 

The Forest Service had not responded to a Source New Mexico inquiry about its prescribed burn rules as of Wednesday afternoon.

Twenty-two years later, federal officials managing the Santa Fe National Forest decided early April was a good time to start a 1,200-acre prescribed burn to help preserve the Gallinas Watershed, the primary water source for Las Vegas. The fire they ignited April 6 sent embers far outside the prescribed area, carried by unexpectedly high winds, and ignited an uncontrolled wildfire. 

“There are a lot of parallels,” Ribe said of the two fires. “In both cases, the agencies were doing the right thing, overall, in general, in principle, to have prescribed fires. That’s a good thing. But the timing left something to be desired in both cases.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday called for a change in federal rules about when to ignite prescribed burns to prevent them from getting out of control, specifically noting the time of year and windy, arid conditions. She also said she expected the federal government to be on the hook to pay some reparations to the state for its role in the Hermits Peak fire, in addition to federal disaster funds. 

In a request for a federal disaster declaration, the Governor’s Office noted that a red-flag warning was in effect on the day that the prescribed burn occurred, to the west and southwest of the ignition site. 

Presidential disaster declaration

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office announced Wednesday that she also called on President Joe Biden and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue a presidential disaster declaration for the ongoing fires in New Mexico. The process typically doesn’t begin until weeks after a natural disaster is over, according to the Governor’s Office, but state officials are hoping for assistance more quickly.

Lujan Grisham’s request covers both individuals and governments within New Mexico impacted by the wildfires. 

People could get money and assistance with housing, counseling, unemployment funds, legal representation, food, child care and small business loans, the Governor’s Office indicates. The office emphasized that folks who are impacted should wait to submit their claims to FEMA until the disaster declaration is approved to make sure their claim is categorized correctly.

State, tribal, territorial and local governments — plus some nonprofits — would get grants.

If the federal government approves, FEMA staff would be deployed to the state and could help with debris removal and other protective measures.

Marisa Demarco

U.S. Forest Service officials had previously canceled the prescribed burn, once scheduled for mid-March, due to snow on the ground.

Officials said at the time that the burn conditions were within their parameters for a safe ignition until “unexpected erratic winds” picked up in the late afternoon. 

The Hermits Peak fire burned about 7,500 acres before it merged with the Calf Canyon fire, though it reached an estimated 91% containment by that time. The combined fire has now burned more than 160,000 acres, making it the second-biggest fire in New Mexico history. Firefighters have contained 20% of the fire, a figure unchanged since Tuesday. 

The Calf Canyon fire’s cause is still being investigated. A Forest Service spokesperson told Source New Mexico on Wednesday that there is no estimate as to when a cause would be determined.

Ribe, in a brief interview with Source New Mexico, said winter moisture or cooler temperatures make for better prescribed burn conditions and will mitigate risks of another out-of-control blaze. 

“I’ve worked on prescribed fires for years,” he said. “They’re best done in the very early spring when there’s still moisture from the winter and then, beyond that, it’s best to wait till fall.”

Once the fire is contained, Ribe said, another battle will begin to determine who is to blame for the fire and whether federal reparations are due. Complicating the matter will be the fact that most of the acreage burned occurred after the two fires merged. 

“I’m hearing this from a lot of people saying, ‘Well, was it really the Hermits Peak fire that got out of control? Or was it the Calf Canyon? And I don’t think the public’s going to have patience with that sort of parsing of the issue. … And it’s also in a political year, as we were in 2000 when Cerro Grande happened.”

Rep. Roger Montoya (D- Velarde) has toured much of the damage in his district and spoken to fire officials. He told Source New Mexico on Friday that it seems at least possible that embers carried on 65 mph winds from Hermits Peak sparked the Calf Canyon fire, though he stressed he was not a scientist. 

“I saw evidence of vast pastures of black, and that’s all from these flying embers. I would say it’s highly like that that might be the case,” he said of Hermits Peak causing Calf Canyon. (Forestry officials did not respond to a request for comment on this possibility or whether they’d rule it out.)

But even if the Calf Canyon fire was not related to the Hermits Peak fire, Montoya said, he sees the two as connected when it comes to the upcoming investigation into what went wrong and who is to blame. 

NM governor to the feds: Stop igniting prescribed burns in windy, dry conditions

“They are inextricably linked, just from the lay eye, just looking at the landscape,” he said. “And it’s tragically unfortunate. I think there are lessons to be critically looked at and investigated and liability (to be determined).”

Ribe, for his part, also stressed that he wasn’t an expert. But he noted Hermits Peak was mostly contained by the time it merged with Calf Canyon, and that might have an effect on how much liability the federal government ends up facing. He also said he is skeptical embers could have been carried several miles from Hermits Peak to the ignition site of the Calf Canyon fire. 

Then Ribe cut the interview short. He had to run to his property in the Pecos to clear up pine needles and other flammable debris. 

His cabin was possibly in the line of the combined fire, he said, and he knows what can happen with an out-of-control blaze such as this. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.