New Mexico Wildfires Traced Back to U.S. Forest Service’s Planned Preventative Measures

Federal investigators on Friday (5-27-22) announced that the two fires east of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which merged together in April to form the massive blaze at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo range to create the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, have been traced to planned burns set by U.S. Forest Service managers as preventative measures.

One of the fires was previously traced to April 6, when a planned burn, set by firefighters to clear out small trees and brush, was declared out of control. On Friday, investigators said they had tracked the source of the second fire to the remnants of a planned winter fire that lay dormant through several snowstorms only to flare up again last month.

Investigators said the prescribed “pile burn” was initiated in January at Gallinas Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest outside Las Vegas, New Mexico, and concluded in the final days of that month. Fire was reported again in the same vicinity on April 9 and escaped control 10 days later amid dry, hot, and windy conditions, Forest Service investigators found.

The findings shift responsibility more squarely toward the U.S. Forest Service for initiating a natural disaster that has destroyed at least 330 homes as flames raged through nearly 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of high-altitude pine forests and meadows. The wildfire has also displaced thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish-colonial roots and high poverty rates, while unleashing untold environmental damage.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a statement called the investigation results a “first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility” for the New Mexico wildfire. She highlighted her pending request to President Joe Biden to direct the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay for 100% of costs related to a broad range of recovery efforts.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week announced a 90-day pause and review of protocols for planned fires that limit the buildup of flammable vegetation. He cited extreme fire danger and unfavorable weather and did not specifically link the review to New Mexico’s fires.

“It will also ensure the prescribed burn program nationwide is anchored in the most contemporary science, policies, practices and decision-making processes, and that employees, partners and communities have the support they need to continue using this critical tool to confront the wildfire crisis,” the agency said in a statement Friday.

Moore said prescribed fires go as planned in more than 99% of cases. Notable exceptions include the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that swept through national security installations and residential neighborhoods at Los Alamos.

Currently, approximately 3,000 firefighters—along with water-dropping planes and helicopters—continue to fight the blaze as it approaches mountain resorts and Native American communities. Firefighting costs already surpass $132 million, climbing by $5 million a day.

FEA compiles the Wood Markets News from various 3rd party sources to provide readers with the latest news impacting forest product markets. Opinions or views expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent those of FEA.