Calf Canyon wildfire also caused by a prescribed burn, investigators say

Forest Service will pay for all firefighting costs, according to Gov. Lujan Grisham

By: - May 27, 2022 1:50 pm

The combined Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires burn north of Las Vegas, New Mexico on Saturday, April 24. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

A federal forestry agency is claiming responsibility for igniting both of the blazes that merged to become the historic wildfire burning in northern New Mexico today.

The cause of the Calf Canyon wildfire in April was a prescribed pile burn the U.S. Forest Service lit in January, the agency’s own investigators announced Friday morning.

They concluded the Calf Canyon Fire “was caused by a pile burn holdover from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April.”

A holdover fire, also called a sleeper fire, is one that remains dormant for a considerable time, the agency wrote.

An escaped prescribed burn lit by the Forest Service is also responsible for the Hermit’s Peak fire, which merged with Calf Canyon in late April. 

As of Friday, May 27, at 1:30 p.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire torched more than 312,000 acres. 

It is 47% contained.

Dispatch records previously reported on by Source New Mexico show that a resident nearby spotted the smoke on April 9 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.

Friday’s announcement from the Forest Service confirms that the resident saw smoke around the Gallinas Canyon Wildland Urban Interface pile burn, which had finished up 10 weeks earlier on January 29.

Crews responded and “lined the 1.5-acre Calf Canyon fire and continued to monitor the fire over the next couple of days to ensure there were no signs of heat or flames near the edge,” the agency said.

Ten days later, on April 19, the Calf Canyon Fire reignited and “escaped containment lines,” according to the U.S. Forest Service investigators.

Winds on April 22 spread the Calf Canyon fire significantly before it merged with Hermit’s Peak.

Bill Gabbert, who runs the Wildfire Today website, previously suggested this dormant ember theory as the cause of the Calf Canyon Fire to Source New Mexico, but it seemed unlikely to other experts at the time.

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

“Our commitment is to manage the public lands entrusted to us by improving the forest’s resilience to the many stressors they are facing, including larger, hotter wildfires, historic levels of drought, rising temperatures, and insects and disease,” Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Debbie Cress is quoted as saying in Friday’s news release.

Questions have lingered about the cause of Calf Canyon, and whether the feds would accept responsibility and liability for the thousands of people whose lives have been disrupted, as they evacuated, and lost homes and businesses to the flames.

“The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service – an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands – is unfathomable,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Friday afternoon.

The conclusion that the U.S. agency ignited the Calf Canyon blaze too is the first step in the federal government taking full responsibility. 

What’s become the biggest wildfire in the state’s recorded history “destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced tens of thousands of New Mexicans, and cost the state and local governments millions of dollars,” Lujan Grisham said. So far, the fire’s cost at least $132 million to fight, and the tally grows by $5 million per day, according to the Governor’s Office, and because of this determination, the Forest Service will pick up the bill.

“I appreciate the U.S. Forest Service assuming responsibility for the federal actions that caused this terrible crisis,” Lujan Grisham said.

There is no word yet about whether the U.S. government will pay for all of the recovery efforts through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Earlier this month, the governor spoke with Randy Moore, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and other federal officials after the blaze. Shortly afterward, Moore announced a 90-day “pause” on the burns, citing high fire risk and a review of agency protocols around controlled burns.

The governor, pointing to climate change, said the Forest Service should add the “vapor pressure deficit” to its models. Vapor pressure deficit, an alternative to relative humidity, allows burn bosses to evaluate how much moisture is in plants, soils and fire fuels.

A study from 2014 found that the variable was a better predictor of damage after wildfires than drought, temperature or precipitation.


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.