Briefs

Governor promises a temporary halt to prescribed burns while wildfires rage in New Mexico

By: - May 10, 2022 1:22 pm

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham provides a wildfire update Tuesday, May 10, at the state Emergency Operations Center near Santa Fe. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that it was “negligent” for the United States Forest Service to ignite a prescribed burn in early April, and that she has received assurances that there will be no more prescribed burns in New Mexico in the short-term — at least not while fires continue to rage here. 

“So no one has to worry about that. That’s been made very clear to our partners: We’re done,” she said. “And nothing happens except fighting these fires, and providing recovery assistance to New Mexicans.”

A Santa Fe National Forest crew on April 6 ignited what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn in Las Dispensas, south of Mora. It quickly jumped out of the burn area and caused the Hermits Peak wildfire, which has since merged with the Calf Canyon fire and burned more than 200,000 acres. 

At a news briefing Tuesday, Lujan Grisham said she shares the anger felt by many New Mexicans about the prescribed burn gone awry. But she said it was an “earnest mistake,” one she expects the federal government to pay for in addition to federal disaster relief. 

“For me, it’s negligent to consider a prescribed burn in a windy season, in a state that’s under an extreme drought warning statewide,” she said. “So I think that it is likely — likely – that Congress and most of our federal partners accept that there is significant federal liability.”

The federal Forest Service has said it is doing a review to determine what went wrong, but they have refused to provide documents or additional details about the decision to ignite the fire. A National Weather Service forecast prepared at forestry officials’ request predicted wind gusts on April 6 reaching 25 mph and humidity as low as 9%, according to records.

Lujan Grisham said she had not yet received any further clarity about decision-making the day the prescribed burn was ignited.

An expert and wildland firefighter, Tom Ribe, told Source New Mexico that it was “extremely risky” to ignite a prescribed burn on a windy April day in New Mexico. He also said the forecast conditions should have given a burn boss pause April 6, but he also stressed the decision to ignite a prescribed burn is a complex and difficult one based on many factors. 

The Hermits Peak fire burned about 7,500 acres and was 91% contained by the time it merged with Calf Canyon. The combined megafire now has burned more than 200,000 acres, destroyed at least 166 structures and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes. The cause of the Calf Canyon fire is still being determined. 

Lujan Grisham has previously called for changes to federal rules regarding prescribed burns, especially ones planned for the spring windy season in the Southwest. 

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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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