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

A short-staffed crew lit a fire in a megadrought while underestimating the value of what could be lost, review shows

By: - June 21, 2022 6:14 pm

The turnoff to Las Dispensas from N.M. 518, south of Mora, N.M., pictured June 8. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

The Santa Fe National Forest crew that watched a prescribed burn blow out of control in early April was understaffed, underprepared and overstressed, according to an 85-page report looking at what went wrong that day.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire has since become the biggest in New Mexico history. The combined megafire is the result of two escaped Forest Service prescribed burns that forced the evacuation of thousands of people, and destroyed hundreds of homes and structures.

Since that fire was lit in a swath of forest north of Las Vegas, people have again questioned how and when burns are conducted. The governor called for changes to protocol and standards, and the Forest Service announced a 90-day halt to review its practices.

The highly anticipated review of the prescribed burn in Las Dispensas was released to the public Tuesday. Such reports are compiled after a prescribed burn escapes and is declared a wildfire. 

 

Four big failures, according to the report

 

Bad weather info and neglected gear

Immediately after the Dispensas prescribed burn was declared the Hermits Peak wildfire, the U.S. Forest Service announced that the fire was ignited in accordance with parameters set in the prescribed burn plan.

But that’s not true, according to the report. For one, forecasted humidity (9% to 13%) was already skirting the minimum outlined in the burn plan (12%), and the observed humidity dropped even more than that for at least an hour, reaching 6% at 4 p.m. that day, about four hours after they lit it. 

The low humidity resulted in a fire that spread faster and at higher intensity than anticipated. 

“The magnitude of the increase in fire behavior in response to the weather was much greater than what would be expected had it remained within the 9-13% range,” the Forest Service review team wrote.

The humidity reading was one of several inaccurate or incomplete weather-related data points that day. 

In the leadup to the fire, the crew relied only on spot forecasts from the National Weather Service. They did not use solar-powered weather monitoring devices nearby, known as Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS), which provide more data.

On the day of the fire, the crew reviewed information from one such device in the Pecos area. While it was the closest to the burn site, reviewers noted that the data it collects is irrelevant to the burn crew because it is separated by a ridge that impacts weather patterns. Another device, the Bartley RAWS, would have produced better fuel and humidity data, but it was not consulted because it had not been regularly maintained, according to the report. 

Both devices were not maintained properly and so couldn’t be used to provide weather trend data that might have been useful. 

The crew also over-relied on National Weather Service wind data, which that day predicted gusts up to 25 mph, instead of “local expertise” that would have warned of variable wind conditions on complex terrain, according to the report. 

Finally, the crew overestimated the amount of moisture in the fuel, the review team wrote: 

“A post-prescribed fire analysis of fuel and weather revealed that the implementation was occurring under much drier conditions than were recognized,” and drought, lack of winter snowpack, accumulation of fine fuels and other factors all “contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape.”

And when humidity drops below the minimum set in the burn plan, the crew is required to monitor weather changes more often than they did that day. Instead of taking weather observations every hour, as the crew did on April 6, according to the report, they are supposed to take them every 30 minutes. 

All of these failures could have reduced the crew’s “situational awareness” in the crucial moments leading up to the escape, the report concluded.

Not enough personnel, not enough backup

At 4:15 p.m., shortly after a wildfire was declared, a supervisor in charge of the north and east section of the burn site reported frequent spot fires outside of the containment line and “not enough resources” to catch them, reviewers wrote.

One root cause of the staffing problem in this case might have had to do with the way forest officials conducted fire modeling. They did not use a model that would have called for additional personnel. 

A different model should have been used, according to the report. If it had been, the crew would have lined up personnel and set up equipment to handle a fire spreading at twice the speed and at both edges of where the fire was lit. 

Staffing has also emerged as a major issue nationally, with low wages and tough working conditions driving many would-be firefighters out of the field. 

On Tuesday, President Biden announced wage increases for wildland firefighters. 

When the fire escaped, dispatchers told crew leaders that a contingency crew that could have helped was at a training in Taos, according to dispatch logs contained in the review.

Inmates were also initially supposed to be available to help out, but they became unavailable as of April 4, according to the report. The authors did not explain why the inmate crew wasn’t available to help.

Officials should have known in advance that a lack of backup would be an issue, the report found. 

Downplaying the risk and the value of what could be lost

The prescribed burn plan for Las Dispensas and elsewhere in the region underestimated just how complex the burns could be and how high the stakes were if crews screwed up, according to the review. 

The prescribed burn plan for this area of the Gallinas Watershed was rated as “moderate” complexity, a designation that carries with it expectations for the potential for damage and amount of personnel and resources required. 

The plan deemed the assets that could be impacted by a fire as “moderate,” which reviewers said was an underestimate: 

“The identified (assets)… represent some of the highest values that can exist,” including drinking water, historic and prehistoric sites, rural communities, the Pecos Wilderness and air quality. 

In multiple areas, the complexity of the burn plan was under-rated or that steps to handle those challenges were skipped, according to the report. 

For example, the burn plan said that there was a low probability that the fire would escape the containment lines, and that spot fires would not carry very far. However, the plan did not indicate why that might have been the case, the reviewers wrote, and that estimate was obviously incorrect.

Another example: In a risk assessment beforehand, planners thought it might be necessary to add in more water tanks to extinguish an escaped burn. But that recommendation “was ignored during plan development and removed,” according to the report.

Around 3 p.m. the day of the burn, a utility terrain vehicle carrying a water tank on the north end of the fire ran out of water. 

Throughout the fire planning, officials lowballed the risk in areas like logistics, modeling and personnel, reviewers wrote, and when it came time for a senior Forest Service official to sign off on the burn plan, that person approved it without question.

But the official, who was unnamed in the report, was presented with a “picture that indicated risks had been reduced, when in fact that was not the case.”

Old burn plan, new climate reality

The burn plan was developed in 2018 and did not account for what prolonged drought would have done to the trees, plants, shrubs and other flammable material in the next few years, the review team wrote. 

The weekend before the fire, snow fell in the area of Las Dispensas. 

A Forest Service official signed off on the ignition because of an incorrect “perception” that this would alleviate long-term drought throughout the area and make fuels moist enough to prevent a catastrophic fire, according to the report. 

Changes in how dry the fuel was, bad estimations of the fire’s behavior, and the crew lighting it up even though conditions were edging prescribed limits for heat and drought created a better chance for full escape if the fire ventured beyond the unit boundary, the reviewers wrote.

Other data the Forest Service reviewed should have raised red flags — like a downward trend in fuel moisture levels, the report states.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in a statement Tuesday, criticized the Forest Service for continuing to re-approve the burn plan without considering the effects of climate change. 

“It is very difficult to understand how a plan crafted several years ago could be repeatedly re-approved without adjustments or considerations for updated drought conditions,” she said. 

The Forest Service review team found numerous failings in this case, including that employees felt pressure to “accomplish the mission” and ignite the fire on April 6, despite several crew members feeling concerned that dry conditions heightened the risk of an escape.

Multiple factors contributed to that sense of urgency, according to the report. One is a big push to increase prescribed burns in national forests, an effort championed by President Joe Biden as a way to adapt to climate change, counteract a century of forest mismanagement and prevent catastrophic fires. 

In recent years, the Forest Service has burned an average of 1.4 million acres. The recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $3 billion toward reducing wildfire risk over the next five years. 

What’s next for prescribed burns?

As part of that, the Forest Service is expected to treat between 2.5 and 4 million acres each year, and much of that will be focused on the West, given its high accumulation of hazardous fuels. 

Meanwhile, a pandemic, federal government shutdowns and endangered species protections delayed forest crews’ ability to meet that mandate. 

“These consecutive and overlapping events not only affected overall employee morale, but also built a sense of urgency to accomplish projects to ‘catch up,’” the reviewers wrote. 

While the report offers an explanation about why Santa Fe National Forest officials might have felt they needed to ignite a fire in April, it also details at length where burn protocols and practices fell short. 

Outside fire experts and state officials criticized the federal forest service early on for lighting a burn in the state’s windy season. That was even well before it became clear exactly how unprepared and short-staffed the crew was that day. 

By and large, the report finds that the forest service crew and its leaders followed the rules in planning, reviewing and lighting a fire. But reviewers showed examples of the Forest Service not abiding its own limits for burning in that area and noted where that plan became outdated or was insufficient for the realities on the ground.

“Every day we place our fire teams… under difficult circumstances and enormous pressure,” the review panel pointed out. “We ask them to make up ground on long-needed and far-behind proactive restoration work, while barely allowing time to recover from a previously taxing wildland fire response and preparing to respond yet again.”

Read the full report below:

Las-Dispensas-Review_Final_6_19_22-508

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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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