As Forest Service wraps up 90-day pause on burns, NM scientist fears what comes next

By: - September 2, 2022 5:00 am

The wreckage of a home in Las Dispensas, the first area destroyed by the Hermits Peak fire in early April. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Mahan)

The United States Forest Service chief is planning to release results soon of a department-wide evaluation of prescribed burning, a review that came after an escaped burn in New Mexico that eventually became the largest in the state’s recorded history. 

On May 20, which was 105 days ago, United States Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced that the service would pause all prescribed burns in the country for 90 days to allow for a review of the agency’s practices. 

The review is in its “latter stages,” a Forest Service spokesperson told Source New Mexico this week. An interagency team completed its recommendations within the 90-day timeframe and sent them to Moore, who will sign off on them. 

A prescription for disaster

The Forest Service aims to announce any changes in early September, according to a spokesperson. 

Matt Hurteau, a forest management scientist at the University of New Mexico, said he is awaiting the findings with bated breath. He fears the agency might over-correct for the relatively rare occurrence of an errant prescribed burn and, in doing so, add additional and needless regulations at the worst possible time. 

“​​I am concerned that it’ll become ridiculously onerous to burn,” he said in an interview Thursday. 

Questions the Forest Service review hopes to answer, according to Chief Moore:

  • Does our prescribed fire program incorporate the most current research on climate change?
  • Do we use our climate models to add to the expertise of decision-makers on the ground?
  • What in our burn plans might need to change?
  • Do we have access to accurate weather forecasts?
  • Do we have enough personnel for the scale of prescribed fire needed to match the scale of wildfire risk across the landscape?
  • Do our existing policies and authorities affect our ability to make sound decisions on the ground?

That said, Hurteau hopes the Forest Service might come up with a way to better adapt to the effects of long-term drought and aridification in the Southwest and predict the ways those forces might make a prescribed burn riskier. 

How a policy might be designed to better take heed of climate change is unclear, but Hurteau said it should respect the expertise of burn bosses and encourage caution in cases when a possible burn is right up against the line of certain parameters, like humidity, wind speed and temperatures. 

“We may want to build a little bit more buffer in there, because we don’t have a perfect understanding of how quickly conditions are changing at this point because of ongoing climate change,” he said. 

In April, a Forest Service crew ignited a swath of Santa Fe National Forest land near Hermit’s Peak, north of Las Vegas, N.M., for what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn. In deciding to do so, the agency reviewed temperature and humidity forecasts that were at the very edge of allowable limits

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

In addition, a forest administrator, in a form authorizing the burn weeks before it was ignited, wrote that recent snowfall and fuel levels would protect against any escape. 

“Although the area is in a drought, we anticipate recent snow events and moist fuel beds will moderate fire behavior,” the administrator wrote, according to a copy of the form provided to Source New Mexico in a public records request, which redacted the administrator’s name. 

The fire escaped and then merged with another escaped pile burn, and the combined megafire eventually grew to more than 500 square miles, causing thousands to flee, destroying hundreds of structures and imperiling the watershed serving Las Vegas. 

In a report produced to study what went wrong leading up to the botched burn, a team determined the agency discounted the effects of recent drought on the landscape, was understaffed and ill-equipped for an escape, and erroneously undervalued the potential damage from a fire, among other shortcomings. 

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

As the fire grew, residents grew outraged about the Forest Service’s role in starting the fire, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation called for a rethinking of burns on federal land, particularly in the windy season in a drought. 

On May 20, Moore announced the review and the pause. 

The review comes as the Forest Service plans to greatly increase its thinning and burning regime, an effort to counteract a century of mismanagement and protect forests from high-intensity and devastating fires. 

Over the next 10 years, the Forest Service is increasing its treatments by up to four times current levels “to match the actual scale of the wildfire risk,” Moore said in a recent statement about the review. 

Hurteau said that he’s not only worried about the results of the review. He also laments the lost burning season in areas that don’t have the same risk as the Southwest, like the Pacific Northwest.

“They lost a burn window, which could have been a good one,” he said. 

Take Nevada, for example. In June, Hurteau was there doing research when the United States Park Service, which was not subject to the ban, ignited a 750-acre prescribed burn on the other side of a ridge in Sequoia National Park. But the pause meant that a nearly identical area that happened to be on Forest Service Land did not get the necessary burn treatment, he said. 

“If the conditions were such that on the next ridge over the Park Service was burning,” he said, “then the fuel conditions and everything else were the same on the Forestry land, right?” 

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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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