As feds stay quiet on state’s largest-ever wildfire, theories circulate about its cause

Dispatch records raise new questions about the start date of the Calf Canyon blaze

By: - May 17, 2022 5:00 am

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire burns on a recent night. The fire is now the biggest in New Mexico history. (Photo courtesy Santa Fe National Forest)

The United States Forest Service on Monday again declined to provide any more details about the prescribed burn that caused the Hermits Peak fire or the sequence of events leading to the nearby Calf Canyon fire, saying it would be “premature” due to ongoing investigations. 

Meanwhile, Twitter chatter is alight, and state leaders are asking, too: Did Hermits Peak embers spark the Calf Canyon blaze? 

The question comes as local leaders seek to hand the federal government the whole bill for the state’s largest-ever wildfire. Hermits Peak was ignited by the U.S. Forest Service as a prescribed burn in early April, but the crew lost control of it. If an ember from the resulting wildfire drifted on to ignite Calf Canyon, a liability question gets all buttoned up: The massive blaze in northern New Mexico would be entirely the feds’ fault. 

As of Tuesday, May 17, at 7 a.m.

The Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire has burned more than 299,500 acres. 

It is 26% contained

Dave Bales, incident commander in charge of fighting the fire, said winds the day of the Calf Canyon fire did not lead from Hermits Peak to the site of Calf Canyon ignition site, so he doesn’t think it’s possible. But, he added, it’s plausible for embers to travel the roughly 3-mile distance, especially with the winds we’ve had lately. 

New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy declined to comment on the question last week, saying it’s under investigation. But she said containing and understanding the blazes is increasingly complex, complicated by the historic wind surges we’ve seen in recent weeks. 

“Part of what makes both fires so difficult to contain when you have wind events like we did… is that a spark, an ember, can move carried by the wind a mile or more,” she told Source New Mexico early last week. “And in fact yesterday, I learned that on the north side of the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fire, an ember blew two miles.” 

“So how do you predict where that ember is going to go?” McCarthy asked.

Another layer of mystery is that the Calf Canyon fire’s cause has not yet been determined. That’ll likely take a forensic investigation, similar to a crime scene, experts said. 

This story is part one in a series about prescribed burns, fire management and climate change. Find the first article here.

Even without knowing Calf Canyon’s cause, elected officials in New Mexico place responsibility with the federal government, saying the United States should take responsibility for at least a good chunk of present and future costs to fight the fire, rebuild communities and replenish forests. Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon are enmeshed, regardless of whether one started the other, they say, and teasing out which damages were caused by what fire is impossible.

Matthew Hurteau, a forest management expert at the University of New Mexico, said it is possible to build a computer model to evaluate the effects both fires independently, though he noted the fires have also interacted in complicated ways as they’ve spread over more than 400 square miles. 

“​​It would be really hard to truly untangle it,” Hurteau said. “But I think you could get a decent estimate for attribution.”

Date of origin

In addition, dispatch records and an email obtained by Source New Mexico from the days after the Hermits Peak fire began raise new questions about the origins of the Calf Canyon fire.

The Santa Fe Interagency Dispatch Center records various callouts and wildfire events in the area of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Even though they haven’t named a cause, officials have identified the start date for the Calf Canyon fire as April 19. However, the dispatch records show that a fire in Calf Canyon was reported April 9.

A resident nearby spotted the smoke and sent an email to a public affairs official for the Santa Fe National Forest Service, who responded to confirm that crews had responded to a fire there April 9. (Source New Mexico has agreed not to name the official or the resident, who cited fears of retaliation.)

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

“We too have seen a pattern in smoke reports from that area, “ the forest official wrote April 21. “Just in the last couple of weeks, we had a smoke report on Saturday, April 9. Crews responded immediately and found the fire.”

“They built fire line around it and did not leave the scene until they thought it had been put out. At that time, it was about an acre.  And then of course, this week, the same fire lookout reported smoke from the same area. Crews again responded and found some pretty active fire behavior due to the extreme winds and dry conditions.”

Hurteau said it’s entirely possible that a fire could smolder without anyone being aware of it for a week and a half, which is how much time elapsed between April 9 and April 19, or even longer.

“There’s a number of examples of things like that where you can have an ignition that people are even unaware of, and it sits there and does nothing until conditions change,” he said.

The dormant ember theory also has a proponent in Bill Gabbert, who runs the Wildfire Today website. He speculates that the offending ember could have been there for as long as four months, tucked away in a pile of debris burned as part of Las Gallinas prescribed burn in early January. Some observers think that’s way too long, though.

The site of the Calf Canyon fire from April 9 is about 4 miles from where the Hermits Peak was at that time — quite a haul for a live ember carried by the wind.

On Monday, Michelle Burnett, a spokesperson for the United States Forest Service, declined to comment on whether investigators are looking into whether the Calf Canyon fire started earlier than April 19. The service also did not answer how it arrived at April 19 as a start date.

“The comprehensive internal Declared Wildfire Review of the Las Dispensas prescribed fire is still ongoing, and the cause of the Calf Canyon fire remains under investigation. It would be premature to comment until either of those is complete,” she said.

There are now two investigations unfolding while the merged Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire grows: One into Calf Canyon’s origins and another as to how the prescribed burn escaped to become Hermits Peak.

Some answers to the second question lie in the past, said Tom Ribe, a wildland firefighter and author of “Inferno by Committee.” Just look at the last time we were in this mess – 22 years ago. 

This story is the second 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.