What’s next for prescribed burns?

By: - Thursday May 26, 2022 4:00 am

What’s next for prescribed burns?

By: - 4:00 am

Firefighters battle the combined Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires on a recent night. (Photo Courtesy Santa Fe National Forest)

Firefighters battle the combined Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires on a recent night. (Photo Courtesy Santa Fe National Forest)

A few embers, carried on high winds, sailed past the containment lines for a prescribed burn north of Las Vegas on the afternoon of April 6. They landed and ignited a swath of dense and bone-dry forest. Six weeks later, more than 310,000 acres had burned — an area about one-quarter the size of the Grand Canyon.

How did that happen? The United States Forest Service won’t say much, citing an ongoing review. Last week, the agency also announced it would halt all prescribed burns for the next 90 days as it conducts a review of its protocols and decision-making. The Forest Service also won’t release a copy of the prescribed burn plan that a burn boss reviewed before igniting the fire.

But agency defends prescribed burns as a necessary tool to maintain healthy forests after a century of fire suppression and climate change made forests especially susceptible to major, destructive wildfires. And some experts say directing ire toward a Santa Fe National Forest crew that made a mistake on a windy April day distracts from the broader conversation about forest management amid severe, climate-change-caused drought.

Meanwhile, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of the New Mexico Congressional delegation are saying the federal government is liable for a fire that has destroyed hundreds of homes and caused tens of thousands of people to flee.

Below, you’ll find a series of stories and additional coverage from reporter Patrick Lohmann that sheds new light on the decision to ignite a prescribed burn in Las Dispensas and digs up documents and insights pointing to how we got here and what the Forest Service might consider changing to prevent this from happening again.

More coverage:

May 24: MLG asks feds to consider ‘extreme’ scenarios ahead of every prescribed burn

May 19: Cerro Grande fire victims were ‘fully compensated’ decades ago. NM gov seeks the same in 2022.

May 10: Governor promises a temporary halt to prescribed burns while wildfires rage in New Mexico

May 10: Forecasts showed 25 mph gusts on the day U.S. Forest Service ignited prescribed burn. 

May 9: U.S. Forest Service defends prescribed burn that caused Hermits Peak fire

May 4: Cerro Grande fire expert: Feds doing a prescribed burn in spring ‘extremely risky’

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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.