Forest Service barely, sorta met burn requirements before Hermits Peak fire, plan shows

And it’s not clear whether the 2018 plan was updated to account for subsequent severe drought

By: - June 3, 2022 1:21 pm

The 2018 prescribed burn plan covered the area above, in red. (Courtesy Santa Fe National Forest)

The Santa Fe National Forest burn boss who greenlit a prescribed burn that spun out of control in early April did so within the conditions set in a plan created four years prior – but only barely, and only sort of, according to a copy of the plan reviewed by Source New Mexico. 

The burn plan was created in 2018 and guided a series of prescribed burns since then for the Gallinas Watershed, which provides water to Las Vegas. 

On April 6 of this year, as per the plan, a Santa Fe National Forest crew ignited what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn in the area of Las Dispensas. The fire grew out of control and later joined forces with the Calf Canyon Fire, another escaped prescribed burn. 

The combined Hermits Peak- Calf Canyon megafire has now burned more than 316,971 acres, the biggest fire in state history.

After the Hermits Peak fire escaped, a Forest Service statement said the blaze was initiated in accordance with “parameters” in the burn plan but that “unexpected erratic winds” carried the fire beyond containment lines. 

The burn plan, released Friday to Source New Mexico, shows the conditions that were deemed safe for such a prescribed burn in Las Dispensas. Two key indicators about whether a burn is safe are wind speed and relative humidity. 

The plan said a burn in Las Dispensas should only occur if wind speeds reach 25 mph at most and if relative humidity does not fall below 12%. 

So what was the forecasted relative humidity on the day of the burn? It was between 9% and 13%, both above and below the parameter set in the plan, according to the document.

In addition, wind gusts were projected to reach the exact maximum outlined in the burn plan – 25 mph. 

Author Tom Ribe, a longtime wildland firefighter, has said it was “extremely risky” to light a fire on a windy April day and that the forecasted winds and humidity should have given a burn boss pause. He and other experts, however, said wind and relative humidity are just two of many factors a burn boss considers when they approve a burn. 

However, the burn plan, received as a partial response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Source New Mexico, provides limited insight into the decision to ignite at Las Dispensas on April 6.

The plan was first created in March 2018, and the documents produced by the Forest Service do not include any records specific to the ignition on April 6, 2022. The agency has not yet provided more-recent records requested by Source New Mexico.  

One such requested document, the “Ignition Authorization” form, requires a supervisor before a burn is ignited to answer whether conditions have changed since a plan was created, specifically regarding “drought or other climate indicators of increased risk.” 

Drought conditions have only intensified since 2018 in New Mexico. In 2018, more than 60% of the state was in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In 2022, that figure has risen to more than 90%, including 45% of land area that is in “exceptional” drought. 

The Forest Service is conducting a review of the Hermits Peak wildfire to see what could have gone wrong in the leadup to the decision to conduct the prescribed burn that escaped. 

In addition, the federal agency recently announced a 90-day halt to all prescribed burns to allow for a review of protocols. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said previously that the federal government carries major liability to those affected and has criticized the agency for igniting a burn in the windy season amid a severe drought. 

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

A 2005 environmental assessment that first identified Las Dispensas as a region to be targeted for a prescribed burn said that burns like the one conducted in that area would only be done in the fall, after the monsoon season and when temperatures have dropped. 

While the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires are both results of escaped prescribed burns, this fire season started much earlier than usual and is shaping up to be catastrophic due to fires caused by natural sources and intensified by climate change factors like high winds and severe drought.

Read the 2018 burn plan below: 


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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.