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

By: - May 4, 2022 4:45 am

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire from the Mora Inn off NM Highway 518 on Sunday May 1, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Wolf)

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling on the federal government to change its rules around prescribed burns after one such blaze grew out of control in early April. It’s contributed to one of the biggest fires in state history that today is threatening homes, farms, villages and cities. 

What’s now known as the Hermits Peak Fire began as Las Dispensas Prescribed Burn. Earlier this year, federal forestry officials announced the proposed 1,200-acre burn to help preserve the Gallinas Watershed, which is the primary water source for Las Vegas, New Mexico.

After canceling the proposed burn once in mid-March, Santa Fe National Forest officials announced April 1 they would try to find the right window in April to try again.

Forestry officials said they were still working on a response to the governor on Tuesday afternoon. We’ll update this story when we hear back.

“The decision to proceed will depend on multiple factors, including resource availability, fuel moisture levels, air quality, ventilation, and forecasted weather and wind,” they wrote in a news release. “Prescribed burns are designed to meet specific objectives and are always managed with firefighter and public safety as the first priority.”

But the blaze they set April 6 quickly grew out of control due to “unexpected erratic winds in the late afternoon” that caused spot fires outside of the proposed burn site, according to forest officials.

They noted that they started the fire when they were satisfied weather forecasts were within the appropriate parameters.

The fire burned at least 7,500 acres before merging with the highly destructive Calf Canyon fire. Now the combined fire has consumed at least 145,000 acres and, at 20% containment, is quickly approaching the record for second-biggest fire in state history.

In a news briefing Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Lujan Grisham said she was calling on the federal government to change its rules around prescribed fires and expected payments from the feds that will be “reparation,” in addition to the money unlocked as part of a federal disaster declaration. 

The governor said the federal government should not be setting fires during the windy season in April. The fires occurred during a historically dry period in New Mexico, and destructive winds later in April ultimately fanned as many as 20 different fires that flared up in the state on a single day. 

Lujan Grisham noted that prescribed burns are part of the equation for managing healthy forests.

Prescribed burning in April and during the windy season does not have to be in that equation. It has no business being in that equation.

– Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

She went on to say that burns might be safer after a rainstorm or when it’s colder, though she acknowledged a prescribed burn in the winter might be less productive. 

Santa Fe National Forest managers canceled a previous attempt at a prescribed burn due to snow on the ground, which put moisture levels above “prescription parameters in the burn plan.”

“We’re going to have to figure it out. But this cannot occur again, anywhere in the U.S.,” she said. “New Mexico is going to work diligently to make sure the feds have a whole new set of rules that keep us safer. That’s for sure.”

People flee their homes as massive fire approaches in northern New Mexico

 

Another of the most destructive wildfires in state history also started as a prescribed burn that whipped out of control due to low humidity and high winds. In 2000, the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos burned about 43,000 acres and, in doing so, destroyed about 400 homes. Officials ignited that fire on May 4 that year. 

In addition to the call for a change to federal prescribed burn rules, Lujan Grisham also announced that she would be submitting a request for basically “unlimited” federal aid in fighting the fire and to help the 6,000 families who had to flee their homes.

If the request is approved — and the governor said it is certain to be — it will be the first time the federal government has approved a request for disaster aid while a disaster is still ongoing, she said.  

“I have no doubt that in addition to the declaration, and early investments by the feds, we should expect what I’m calling reparation, restitution — direct investments by the feds,” she said. 

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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. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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