U.S. Forest Service says it’s not obligated to follow state law on prescribed burns

By: - June 6, 2023 4:35 am
Burnt up remnants from what used to be a house sit in a forest full of dead trees.

Wreckage from a house that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned. Pictured in September 2022. The U.S. Forest Service lost control during a prescribed burn, merging two fires into the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

The U.S. Forest Service scheduled two prescribed burns last week in the southwest part of the state despite a red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service. Ultimately the agency burned the day before, but not the day of the warning.

However, officials also said a new state law banning burning during red flag events does not apply to the federal agency.

Following the largest wildfire in the state’s history last year, New Mexico lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, a bill that prohibits prescribed burns during a red flag warning. The bill was in response to the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which started as two prescribed burns by the Forest Service that got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Maribeth Pecotte told KUNM that the state law does not apply to the federal agency. Spokesperson Ivan Diego Knudsen with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwest region, sent a written response to KUNM’s followup questions.

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“While the Forest Service does not strictly prohibit the ignition of prescribed fire on national forests during red flag conditions, prescribed burn plans, and the decisions to allow ignition, are based on site-specific assessments of the conditions necessary to achieve the resource objectives of the proposed prescribed fire safely, and to contain the prescribed fire to the planned burn area.”

Republican State Senator Ron Griggs from Alamogordo was the bill’s sponsor, and said there’s not much New Mexico can do if the Forest Service doesn’t follow the law.

“It’s designed to get their cooperation to avoid incidents, like we’ve had in the past, where they’ve initiated a prescribed burn during a red flag warning, and it’s gotten out of control,” he said. “So the hope is that they will consider that whenever they do a prescribed burn.”

Griggs said that the Forest Service is showing a lack of concern for New Mexico and New Mexicans with its comments.

“That’s just the federal government thumbing their nose in the face of the state government and in the face of the people of New Mexico, which I think is something that they would be wise not to do.”

Spokesperson for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham Caroline Sweeney said in a statement that lawmakers and the governor sent a clear message with the legislation.

“The U.S. Forest Service, of all groups, should recognize the importance of exercising extreme caution when executing controlled burns, especially during the windiest parts of the year,” Sweeney wrote in an email. “We fully expect the agency to consider the grave potential consequences of any burn done in risky weather. We urge extreme caution and a high regard for the people of New Mexico as any prescribed burns are conducted.”

When asked what type of steps are taken when assessing whether to burn or not. Knudsen wrote the Forest Service has a “multi-level approval process for prescribed fires.” That includes looking at local fire conditions and making assessments of firefighter qualifications and the response capabilities of fire officials.

Griggs says the agency should be more aware of its actions and the potential impact.

“We just hope that they operate in the spirit of the law,” Griggs said. “And if they choose not to, we can’t make them operate differently. I think the thing to do is to just watch and see how this year goes. See what the Forest Service does, see if things are okay, because it may be just this one instance, it may be 50 instances, we don’t know.”

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Jeanette DeDios
Jeanette DeDios

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. Jeanette can be contacted at [email protected] or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.