Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The team that started a prescribed burn west of Las Vegas, New Mexico, in early April underestimated how dry the forest was.
Weather information was relayed from an Albuquerque office, and radio communication between fire officials was spotty at best.
And when the burn started to get out of control, crews tasked with jumping in were nearly two hours away at a fire training summit in Taos.
The prescribed burn west of Las Vegas on April 6 was fraught with planning and execution errors, according to a U.S. Forest Service review of the burn that became the Hermits Peak wildfire.
The post-fire investigation reveals that the team followed its approved plan but likely underestimated risks and failed to prepare for how to control the blaze if the burn went wrong.
Investigators also note that personnel did not immediately stop ignitions or suppress the burn even after conditions worsened. They say pressure to “accomplish the mission” may have led to the crew taking greater risks.
An 85-page review, released to the public Tuesday, also details the hours on April 6 leading up to crews losing control of the prescribed burn on the Santa Fe National Forest that eventually became New Mexico’s largest-ever wildfire.
The report outlines several missteps:
- The burn plan was last reviewed and approved nearly six months before the burn date.
- The test fire before the burn was in a location with light fuels and not representative of the rest of the project area.
- The team relied too much on regional weather forecasts instead of on-the-ground observations.
- A burn plan failed to identify water resources or logistical support.
- Fuels were much drier than the team thought.
The report does not mention whether disciplinary action was taken against anyone for what transpired. The Government Accountability Office has commissioned an independent investigation into the burn.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that she is “deeply frustrated by the numerous missteps” identified in the review.
“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, as well as how that plan could be put into place without any immediate data for weather conditions during what New Mexicans know to be a particularly windy time of the year,” she said. “In addition, it does not appear that anyone involved in this burn was held to account for the significant mistakes made during this burn.”
The review team studied crew documents, dispatch records and first-hand accounts to determine how the prescribed burn became a destructive wildfire.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said he launched a federal review on May 10 to determine “how this tragic event unfolded.”
“Wildfire mitigation, wildland firefighting, and many other land management activities we perform are inherently dangerous,” Moore said in the report. “When that work does not go as planned, it is imperative that we learn from those experiences.”
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is more than 341,000 acres and 72% contained.
The blaze forced evacuations across several northern New Mexico counties and destroyed at least 400 homes.
Communities in the fresh burn scars are now preparing for floods.
“I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals,” Moore said.
According to the review, a burn boss determined that a test fire on the morning of April 6 was successful.
But the test fire was in a location with light fuels. That is not representative of the rest of the project area.
Before and after the test fire, the report found “some personnel felt that the dry conditions would result in difficult burning conditions and an increase in risk, but they accepted the assignment.”
Crews proceeded with igniting the prescribed burn.
Less than five hours later, and after numerous spot fires escaped, the burn boss “did not hesitate” to declare the incident a wildfire.
A Santa Fe National Forest Service spokesperson said Tuesday that the regional office would not be providing immediate comments on the review. The office directed the Journal to Chief Moore’s statements.
The burn plan
The Gallinas Watershed Prescribed Fire Plan was prepared in 2019 and approved in October 2021.
The federal agency review details several gaps in the burn plan and missteps in its execution.
Radio communication was spotty or nonexistent between project leaders several times during the afternoon of April 6.
The team likely underestimated fire potential, complexity and fuel dryness in the project boundary.
The plan also didn’t consider how fuels outside the burn unit would react if the fire escaped.
Models used to determine fuel moisture underestimated how dry the region’s trees and grass were, so the team’s project “was burning under much drier conditions than they understood.”
Complex terrain in the project area and shifting winds in that terrain should have been observed with local instruments.
Instead, the team was over-reliant on wind predictions from the National Weather Service.
A spot weather forecast provided to the burn team shows a maximum temperature of 54 to 58 degrees, with minimum humidity levels at 9% to 13%.
The forecast predicted west winds at 10 to 15 mph, with possible gusts of 25 mph.
Those conditions were “near the high end” of the burn plan’s parameters.
But the review team found no evidence that the burn crew did more required frequent weather observations after learning of the forecast.
Several remote weather stations in the burn area malfunctioned or had data gaps in the weeks leading up to the project, which complicated the team’s ability to make on-the-ground measurements.
According to the review, the burn plan says that “fire behavior may present challenges that are easily mitigated.”
But the plan does not detail those challenges or how to mitigate them.
A “fully qualified” crew was operating with a document that said any spot fires outside the project would be minimal.
But the review found that fuels outside the burn boundary were extremely likely to ignite and create spot fires.
The report said the burn plan ignored water resources and “extensive logistical support” that would be needed to fight an escaped burn.
Crews thinned fuels along control lines in the weeks and months prior to the burn.
But the review found that the prep work “concentrated fuels into jackpots that contributed to torching and spotting” on the burn day.
The team’s pre-burn briefing “was not adequately documented.”
A checklist of briefing items was not completed, and the review found it “difficult to determine who was present on the burn.”
Two years of government shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic postponed many Forest Service burn projects.
An injunction on forest treatments because of litigation over the Mexican spotted owl also limited the agency’s ability to do prescribed burns in the region.
The review said those events “not only affected overall employee morale, but also built a sense of urgency to accomplish projects to ‘catch up.’”
The local team accepted “unforeseen risk” in part because they saw a narrow window for the project.
In the more than three months since the blaze started, firefighting costs have exceeded $248 million.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., blasted the Forest Service, calling the findings “incredibly disturbing.” The lawmaker represents communities in the burned area.
“The cavalier attitude to the complexities of fire behavior and the likelihood of escape from the perimeters is shocking,” Leger Fernández said in a statement. “The prescribed burn analysis not only undervalued what was at risk, the impact of the extended drought on the likelihood of having a fire escape the perimeters, and did not update the analysis with the latest conditions on the ground.”
The report recommends several strategies for preventing future catastrophic prescribed burns.
“We should not be overconfident in the prescribed burn plans we develop. We should test, confirm, and update the assumptions and information in them based on real-time, on-the-ground information,” the review reads.
The agency concluded that well-maintained weather stations on site could have helped the team be more aware of the on-the-ground situation.
Other recommendations include:
- Improve fuel moisture measurements.
- Consider fire behavior tools that better predict complex conditions.
- Strengthen employee feedback methods.
- Ensure that multiple perspectives support the test fire and ultimate burn decision.
- Invest in training opportunities.
- Supplement the federal firefighting workforce with non-federal groups.
‘Tool in our toolbox’
Despite the mistakes that led to the Hermits Peak Fire, Chief Moore said that prescribed fire “must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat” catastrophic wildfires.
“Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely,” Moore said.
The review notes that prescribed fire is “the most ecologically appropriate, and often the most economical” tool for maintaining healthy forest ecosystems.
In late May, the agency paused all prescribed burns on forest lands.
Moore also referenced the Calf Canyon Fire in his statement. That blaze resurfaced from a prescribed pile burn that smoldered for months despite snowstorms and freezing temperatures.
Calf Canyon merged with Hermits Peak in late April.
“That type of event was nearly unheard of until recently in the century-plus of experience the Forest Service has in working on these landscapes,” Moore said. “Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.”