Echoes of the Cerro Grande wildfire 22 years later

A Forest Service plan indicates a prescribed burn like Las Dispensas should be ignited in the fall after a rainy season. It happened in early April instead.

By: - May 18, 2022 5:00 am

A firefighter looks at the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire on a recent night. The prescribed burn that escaped has echoes of the Cerro Grande, which in 2000 became a cautionary tale in a new prescribed burn regime. (Photo Courtesy Santa Fe National Forest)

Amid an extended drought and a busy wildfire season, a National Park Service crew lined up to light a prescribed burn in dense forest in early May, 2000. The windy season. A big mistake.

The blaze grew out of control quickly and thanks to a delay in suppression, limited resources and merciless weather, became the notorious Cerro Grande fire — one that burned about 43,000 acres, caused $1 billion in damage and destroyed several hundred Los Alamos homes. 

The crew that lit the fire briefly needed police protection due to community anger. 

In the aftermath, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responding to what had become a nationally known disaster, issued what it called “special reimbursements” to those affected, saying for the first time ever, FEMA would fully compensate those who suffered losses due to the Park Service’s error. The agency set up a new claims office to help in the effort. 

That year, wildfires across the country had burned nearly 6.5 million acres, more than twice the 10-year national average, and prompted a presidential response. 

In a report compiled for then-President Bill Clinton, the Cerro Grande fire became a cautionary tale in what would become the National Fire Plan to mitigate the damage of wildfires.  

Reliance was growing on prescribed burns, a tool to reduce density in the West’s forests, which were being increasingly inhabited by newcomers in the so-called “wildland-urban interface,” the report says. A century of fighting any and all wildfires had left forests extremely dense.

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

A section of lower-elevation ponderosa pines in northern Arizona, for example, once held 50 trees per acre but now held 200 or more, according to the report.

In response, Clinton ordered a review of all high-risk forested areas in the country to be thinned and burned. He also ordered that, in light of the Cerro Grande fire, all prescribed burns incorporate any lessons learned from an independent review of how the Cerro Grande got out of control. 

That (prescribed burn) program will continue to play a key role, although the lessons from the Cerro Grande fire demand that this strategy be implemented with great care,” the report concludes. “In that regard, the departments will implement recommendations from the independent review of the Cerro Grande fire.”

In response, the United States Forest Service, like forest managers nationwide, compiled its environmental assessment of the Gallinas watershed, published in 2005. In that document, bound into a book available at the State Library in Santa Fe, the Forest Service identified 8,169 acres of federal forest land in the Gallinas watershed as prime for wildfires. 

Thinning the trees

The year the report was published, the Gallinas watershed had between 700 to 1,000 ponderosa pines or 800 to 1,000 mixed conifer trees per acre. The National Forest plan sought to reduce that amount to between 45 and 160 per acre over the next 10 years. 

The major goal of the thinning project was to protect the watershed, which is the primary water source for Las Vegas, N.M. With even a small wildfire, ash and sediment can make its way into drinking water. The region’s previous big wildfire — the Viveash fire in 2000 — burned 22,000 acres west of the watershed but still had “substantial impacts” on the water supply, showing up in the Las Vegas treatment plant 22 miles downstream, the report states. 

“A fire of Viveash’s magnitude occurring completely in the Gallinas watershed would be disastrous for those who depend on Las Vegas’ water quality,” the report states. 

To prevent such a fire, the Forest Service identified multiple areas for thinning with prescribed burns, including a 1,204-acre area of dense ponderosa and mixed-conifer forest called Las Dispensas. 

Such a burn would have the impact of a temporary increase in sediment heading into the water supply, the document states, but ultimately help the Forest Service’s goal of preventing large amounts of ash and sediment from flowing into Las Vegas’ drinking water and several reservoirs downstream. 

A plan gone awry

The Forest Service plan says the type of burn that was done on Las Dispensas — a so-called “broadcast burn,” in which swaths of forest are burned to mimic a natural, low-intensity fire — would only be done in the final phase of the watershed thinning project, and most likely only in the fall, “following the rainy season in July and August.” 

Instead, on April 4, 2022, a dry, windy day with humidity projected in the single digits and wind gusts predicted to be 25 mph, the forest crew ignited Las Dispensas and caused what became the Hermits Peak wildfire. 

As of Wednesday, May 18, at 7 a.m.

The Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon fire has burned nearly 302,000 acres. 

It is 34% contained.

Tom Ribe, wildland firefighter and author of “Inferno by Committee,” a book about the Cerro Grande fire, said he sees plenty of parallels so far between what happened in 2000 and what happened in early April this year. 

The Forest Service’s prescribed burn was “extremely risky,” he said. He recommends agencies only do prescribed burns in the very early spring or the late fall. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently called on the federal government to change its prescribed burn rules for the Southwest for that same reason.

In 2000, when the Park Service lost control of Cerro Grande, condemnation was swift about the timing, in particular. Many called the Park Service officials “amateurs,” Ribe said.

“The Forest Service piled on with that, too,” at the time, Ribe said. “And now we’re seeing that anybody can do it. Anybody can make a mistake.”

Who saw the burn plan?

The Forest Service will also not comment on whether it heeded another lesson from Cerro Grande in the lead-up to the prescribed burn in Las Dispensas on April 6. One major recommendation from the Cerro Grande review was that burn bosses should start circulating prescribed burn plans “in risky situations”for peer review ahead of any burn. Preferably, the report reads, those burn plans should be sent to a completely different agency. 

However, it’s not clear whether the Forest Service requires those peer reviews, and it’s not clear whether the Santa Fe National Forest officials did that in this case. 

In 2017, a crew with the Santa Fe National Forest lost control of another prescribed burn in Las Gallinas, though with much milder consequences. In that review, requested by a supervisor, the agency reported that the burn plan was submitted to the deputy forest fire management officer within the Santa Fe National Forest agency, but not to, say, the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management. 

The review determined the officer was qualified to have done the technical review.

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

A State Forestry spokesperson said the federal Forest Service sometimes informs the New Mexico agency about a prescribed burn in advance, typically as a “courtesy,” and the burn must adhere to state air quality standards. But spokesperson Wendy Rogers said the Forest Service did not provide a copy of the burn plan. A spokesperson for San Miguel County, which is where the burn took place, also said the county did not receive a burn plan in advance. 

Prescribed burn guidelines on the U.S. Forest Service website also do not include a step for a peer review like what’s recommended in the Cerro Grande fire report.

The other Cerro Grande “lessons learned” include ensuring coordination with backup firefighters is coordinated in advance, just in case a fire escapes, and making a burn boss complete a “go/no-go” checklist advance of any fire to ensure all the standards are met. 

While the Forest Service has not produced any more details about the decision to light Las Dispensas on fire that windy April day, Burnett has said prescribed burns are a necessary tool to preserve watersheds and healthy forests, and that it is extremely rare for one to escape the way Las Dispensas did. 

Prescribed fire is one of the most efficient and low-cost ways of reducing wildfire risk,” Burnett told Source New Mexico in a statement. “Regularly conducting low-grade prescribed fires, which mimic nature, reduces and maintains the buildup of flammable vegetation and overgrowth.”

She also said a review is ongoing, and law requires that each escaped prescribed burn be subject to its own “lessons learned” report. 

While the fire continues growing, it’s not clear when that review will be completed, or whether any lessons will bear repeating. 

Timeline of Las Dispensas prescribed burn

Feb. 25: Forestry officials announce plan to hit Las Dispensas “if conditions remain favorable”

March 3: Potential date of Las Dispensas burn, though it does not appear officials sought a “spot forecast” from National Weather Service

March 18: A previously announced burn date, called off due to snow on the ground

April 3: National Weather Service begins providing spot forecasts for potential Las Dispensas Prescribed burn. Daily forecasts show “strong to severe winds” for the next few days, falling humidity, and Red Flag warnings. 

April 6: Day of burn. No Red Flag warning in effect. Wind gusts predicted at 25 mph and humidity at 9% to 13%

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

Source New Mexico has also published a copy of the Gallinas Environmental Assessment below. It is otherwise only available at the New Mexico State Library in Santa Fe or at the Library of Congress.

gallinasEA-1

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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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