Hot takes: NM pols point fingers at the feds for megafire

Considering prescribed burns in the time of climate change

By: - May 16, 2022 5:00 am

A firefighter working overnight battling the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. (Photo courtesy of the Santa Fe National Forest)

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and co-sponsors of an act to compensate victims of what will soon become the biggest fire in New Mexico history would prefer you call the blaze simply the “Hermits Peak fire.”

As of Monday, May 16, at 11 a.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire has burned over 298,000 acres, overtaking the record for biggest fire in New Mexico History. 

The previous record for biggest fire in N.M.’s history is the Whitewater Baldy Complex, set in 2012, according to the Southwest Coordination Center.

The “Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act,” introduced this week, seeks to compensate victims of the out-of-control fire. The blaze escaped from a Santa Fe National Forest crew conducting controlled burn on a small swath of dense ponderosa pine and mixed conifer near the watershed that serves Las Vegas. 

Two weeks later, it joined forces with the nearby Calf Canyon fire, and, thanks to historically windy and dry conditions, became the monster that rages today. 

“As the Hermits Peak Fire continues to leave a devastating impact on our state, the federal government must take responsibility for its role in this fire and remain active in providing relief to New Mexicans whose daily lives have been upended,” Luján said in announcing the bill. 

The bill text itself even specifies that the fire be referred to only as the “Hermits Peak fire.” (Luján’s office had not yet responded to a request for comment on why that is as of Sunday evening.)

Meanwhile, Republican leadership in the New Mexico House of Representatives issued a letter Friday to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, raising concern about federal management of New Mexico forests and calling for an independent investigation into the federal government’s role starting the “Hermits Peak fire,” which they say is still causing damage in much of northern New Mexico.

This story is part one in a series about prescribed burns, fire management and climate change.

“Because the United States Forest Service ordered the prescribed burn that became the Hermits Peak Fire, an investigation conducted solely by the federal government lacks fundamental guarantees of transparency and trustworthiness,” the letter reads, “and leaves northern New Mexicans without any confidence that a thorough and fair investigation will be conducted.”

While some experts have criticized the Santa Fe National Forest’s decision to light a prescribed burn on a windy April day this year, others also caution that giving the feds too much blame distracts from the broader conditions enabling such a devastating fire — mismanaged, overly dense forests and climate change that turns trees into matchsticks. 

After all, though it’s the biggest, the fire was just one of 20 burning in the state in late April. Those other fires didn’t need a prescribed burn to consume chunks of forest, just the smallest of embers from a cigarette butt, a vehicle’s catalytic converter, a smoldering campfire.

“We’re basically ignoring or downplaying the risks that are truly out there,” said Matthew Hurteau, a forest management expert at the University of New Mexico. “The landscapes are primed to burn.”

With 20 active fires in a single April day, N.M. braces for longer, more dangerous season

The question, he said, should be: “​​How do we better manage the risk associated with prescribed burning such that it’s as effective a tool as it can be?”

What most experts and observers refer to as the “Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire” (or, in shorthand, “Hermit-Calf”) began in early April when a Santa Fe National Forest crew lit what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn in Las Dispensas, about 12 miles north of Las Vegas. 

“Unexpected erratic winds” picked up shortly after, officials said, carrying lit embers outside of the burn area. It was declared the Hermits Peak wildfire shortly after. 

It had burned through about 7,500 acres and was considered mostly contained by the time it merged with the Calf Canyon fire about three weeks later and became reinvigorated from high winds. The combined fire quickly approached the record for biggest fire in state history. It’s destroyed hundreds of homes, caused the evacuation of thousands of people and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars so far. 

Tom Ribe, an author and wildland firefighter, said it was “extremely risky” for a crew to ignite a prescribed burn like the one that caused the Hermits Peak fire. But it looks to him like politicians in public statements are ignoring the existence of the Calf Canyon fire, a fire of undetermined cause engorged on historically high winds in the midst of a megadrought before merging with Hermits Peak. 

Forecasts showed 25 mph gusts on the day U.S. Forest Service ignited prescribed burn

Ribe, who has a cabin in the Pecos wilderness, wrote “Inferno by Committee,” the definitive book on the Cerro Grande fire — an escaped prescribed burn in 2000 started by the National Parks Service that burned hundreds of homes and cost $1 billion in damage.

If the fallout from Cerro Grande is any indication, he said, the federal employees who started the Hermits Peak fire could be vilified. After the fire, some of the crew needed police protection. Ribe sees the obfuscation as a way to maximize federal liability and also minimize the blame blast radius that occurs in a disaster like this. 

It may be political, just trying to get out ahead of the sort of anger we saw at Cerro Grande,” Ribe said. “People were really angry at the Parks Service. As they should have been.”

President Joe Biden has approved federal disaster aid for New Mexicans affected by the fire. But the governor has also said she expects there to be additional financial compensation due to the federal Forest Service’s role. 

New Mexico’s full congressional delegation — Sens. Martin Heinrich and Luján, along with Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury and Yvette Herrell — sent a letter to Biden on Saturday. They’re joining the state in asking that the state not be required to chip in one-quarter of the costs during the disaster period and that the feds OK money for debris removal and emergency protective measures. 

Lujan Grisham, at a news conference last week, said that New Mexicans should know that whatever disaster assistance comes via the Federal Emergency Management agency won’t be enough. That’s especially true for the type of rebuilding she said is required and hopes will become a model across the country for how to respond to a natural disaster of this magnitude. 

It will cost hundreds of millions or even billions to do what the governor says is necessary, things like fixing or constructing homes, thinning forests, and restoring reservoirs and watersheds. 

“When you think about rebuilding communities, it’s not an overnight process. So we should be thinking in terms of significant resources,” she said. “And those resources, in my view, should largely be borne by the federal government, given the situation.”

And the effort to drop the fire bill at the federal government’s feet might also be helped along by the tricky question of which of the two fires has done the most damage. By the time Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak joined forces April 22, both had burned less than 10,000 acres. 

State  Rep. Roger Montoya (D-Velarde) told Source New Mexico that he believes the two fires are “inextricably linked” when it comes to determining the damage done — and therefore where the liability falls. 

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

Lujan Grisham, at a news conference this week, said it’s “really impossible” to determine which fire is most to blame for the devastation caused, given the intensity of recent windy and dry conditions and the federal government’s “negligence.” 

“Here’s my position as the governor today: We were having to focus on Hermit’s Peak. Those embers could have flown over anywhere, caused (Cooks Peak, another nearby fire) and (Calf Canyon). How do you know?” she said. “I think we just focus with the federal government. A prescribed burn put us in the most dangerous situation.”

The governor said the escaped fire was an honest mistake but one for which she expects the federal government to accept “significant liability.” She also predicted that the feds will accept enough blame that the state won’t have to parse out which fire caused what. 

“But if anyone wants a fight about that,” she said, “they’ll get one.”

This story is the first entry in a series about prescribed burns, fire management and climate change. Here are the other two:

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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.