Leger Fernandez: Forest Service ‘undervalued’ NM region where prescribed burn was ignited

By: - June 21, 2022 5:03 pm

The burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire pictured Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

The Forest Service’s first big error when it came to a recent escaped prescribed burn in Northern New Mexico was deeming the area where the agency ignited the fire to have only “moderate” value, U.S. Rep Teresa Leger Fernandez told Source New Mexico. 

The detail was included in an 85-page report released Tuesday, a review of the Dispensas burn  lit on by federal forestry personnel on April 6. They lost control of the fire, and it merged with another errant prescribed burn to form the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history.

In the report, a review team determined that the Forest Service should have designated the area as “high” risk, given the potential damage to communities, air quality, homes, heritage and environment. Instead, the “moderate” designation meant the Forest Service had fewer requirements about resources, personnel and preparation, the congresswoman said. 

“They undervalued my community. They undervalued our homes. They undervalued our history. They undervalued mi gente, right?” Leger Fernandez told Source New Mexico.

These are our communities. These are places they loved. And they thought they were of moderate value?

– U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.)

We’ve reached out to the Forest Service for comment on Leger Fernandez’s criticism. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

The review found that the Forest Service was short-staffed and ill-prepared for how dry the drought had made fuels in Las Dispensas, about 12 miles north of Las Vegas. It also found the agency lowballed the risks and consequences of a wildfire in the area.

Leger Fernandez, a Democrat who is representing the area in her first term in Congress, demanded more information from the Forest Service since shortly after the fire broke out. She also recently successfully called for another, independent review of the fire that will be conducted by the Government Accountability Office. The review published Tuesday was conducted by a panel of current and former federal officials from within and outside of the Forest Service. 

Major mistakes the Forest Service made in starting biggest fire in New Mexico history

The review is meant to result in better and clearer parameters for prescribed burns, which Leger Fernandez said are a necessary tool to protect forests during climate change — if done safely and well. 

“We know that the prescribed burns are important for managing our forests and, because of the mistakes that we have made over 100 years, we need to undo our mistakes. And prescribed burns are part of that,” she said. “But we need to learn how to do them in a way where we’re reassured that they are as safe as possible.”

She also criticized the forest service for failing to adapt for the realities of climate change, another factor she hopes will be part of the GAO investigation. For one, the environmental assessment that provided the guidance for thinning and burning in the Gallinas Watershed was completed in 2006 and not updated since, she said. 

Secondly, the prescribed burn plan that provided specific areas for burns was completed in 2019, she added, and not updated amid severe drought in the years since. 

“That’s the irony of this is that (assessment) was intended to protect the watershed. And the manner in which they went forward with this prescribed burn has now potentially destroyed the watershed,” she said. “That’s the cruel irony.”

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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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