A wildfire that destroyed more than 45,000 acres in the Jemez mountains in April 2022 was caused by pile burns set months earlier by the U.S. Forest Service, the agency announced Monday.
The Cerro Pelado Fire was the third reported prescribed burn to explode into a New Mexico wildfire in the month April 2022, a year in which the state recorded its most destructive wildfire yet, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, near Las Vegas, N.M.
The cause of the Cerro Pelado, seven miles east of Jemez Springs, had been under investigation for more than year after an initial wildlife fire investigator, brought in from Washington State, couldn’t determine how it started.
A second inquiry, which included Forest Service criminal investigators, attributed the fire to the agency’s pile burns that weren’t fully extinguished over the 2022 winter. Such burns of forest debris are used as a way to mitigate the threat of wildfires later in the year.
A high wind event in the area exposed embers from a previous burn operation, sending embers downwind and upslope, the Forest Service concluded.
“This fire deeply affected our communities,” said USDA Forest Service Southwestern Regional Forester Michiko Martin said in a statement. “This investigation adds to the considerable evidence of how severely the Santa Fe National Forest was affected by extreme environmental conditions caused by historic drought in 2022.”
The Cerro Pelado fire erupted April 22, 2022, the same day the Calf Canyon fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire in the Pecos Wilderness. That combined fire consumed more than 341,000 acres.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sharply criticized the federal agency in a response Monday afternoon.
“I am — again — outraged over the U.S. Forest Service’s negligence that caused this destruction,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to to hold the federal government accountable for each of the disastrous fires they caused in our state last summer.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., released a statement saying: “It is frustrating and deeply concerning to learn now that the Cerro Pelado Fire was also caused by an escaped prescribed fire.
“The warming climate is making our forests more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. That’s a reality that our Forest Service can and must urgently respond to when deciding when and how to do prescribed burns. We cannot catch up to this reality if it takes nearly a year to even make the findings on the Cerro Pelado Fire public,” Heinrich said.
“As the Forest Service does the necessary work of updating its modeling and use of prescribed fires, it must also prioritize rebuilding the public’s trust,” Heinrich added. “This will require more transparency and much more concerted and authentic engagement with New Mexicans than the Forest Service has shown up to this point.”
State Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Cabinet Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said in a statement that agency’s failure to promptly disclose the fire’s cause, further harmed “New Mexicans who have been unable to file insurance claims pending disclosures of the fire’s origins.”
The Cerro Pelado investigation report on Monday came more than a month after a logging company that worked in the Jemez mountains filed a federal lawsuit alleging the Forest Service was violating public records law in failing to release documents about the fire’s cause. That lawsuit is still pending.
“I think what’s clear from a a cursory reading (of the 230-page report) is they did not want people to know the U.S. Forest Service was responsible for this fire,” said attorney Christopher Bauman, who represents TC Company in the lawsuit. He said “something is fishy” within the agency because of the two different investigative teams assigned, and of the time it took to issue the report.
The Forest Service earlier this year had denied Bauman’s request for records saying in part, “Early disclosure of findings may interfere with pending enforcement proceedings related to the Cerro Pelado Fire.”
An agency spokesperson didn’t immediately return a Journal request for an interview on Monday.
The Forest Service Report of Investigation states that the wildland fire investigator from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources traveled to New Mexico and began investigating the fire’s cause on April 28, 2022.
By May 11, 2022, a copy of his concluded investigation was routed to the Forest Service’s assistant special agent in charge, who wasn’t identified. At the same time, the investigator left a copy of his report where it was reviewed by agency personnel.
Soon after, the investigative report states, “some (Forest Service) personnel had concerns, most notably, (with his assertion) that the piles had not been burned at the time the Cerro Pelado Fire was reported.”
The Washington investigator, whose name was also redacted, reported that when he arrived April 28, six days after the Cerro Pelado fire began, “it was impossible to tell if the slash piles had been worked before the Cerro Pelado fire started, or after.”
“Interviews conducted between April 29 and May 7 revealed that the slash piles … had been checked by fire crews as recently as April 20,” he reported, and in the days after fire suppression began. He reported the cause as “inconclusive” because he contended the area of the piles had been destroyed during Cerro Pelado firefighting efforts.
A second team of investigators concluded the most probable ignition source was a “debris pile burn” named the Pino West Piles Prescribed Fire. That fire’s burn plan called for removal of more than 750 acres of “hazardous fuel” in February 2022.
“Despite being covered by wet snow, this holdover fire remained dormant for considerable time with no visible sign of smoke or heat,” said Martin, in the statement released Monday.
Escaped prescribed fires in 2022 led the Forest Service to implement a 90-day national pause on prescribed fire and review changes to the prescribed fire program, Martin stated. Since then, among other changes, firefighters in the Southwestern Region, including the Santa Fe National Forest, now monitor piles using handheld thermal devices and drones that can detect whether heat is present.
The cause of the Calf Canyon fire was also attributed to a “holdover” fire from a Forest Service pile burn four months earlier. That fire remained dormant under the surface through three winter snows before reemerging April 9, 2022.
The Hermits Peak fire ignited after Forest Service officials lost control of a prescribed burn three days earlier during erratic, high winds in the area.