Massive Southwest Wildfire Prompts Forest Service To Pause Prescribed Burns

On April 6 a prescribed fire was set by the US Forest Service in the Santa Fe National Forest in the Sangre de Cristo mountains between the cities of Santa Fe and Las Vegas, New Mexico. Within hours, gusting winds spread the fire outside of the planned burn boundary and by 4:30 p.m. the same day it was declared a wildfire.

Later that month, the so-called Hermit’s Peak Fire would go on to merge with the Calf Canyon Fire and the entire complex has now burned over 300,000 acres to become the largest fire in state history. Tens of thousands of homes have been evacuated, hundreds of homes, ranches and other buildings have been destroyed and livestock have been lost. Thankfully no human casualties have been reported.

And many in New Mexico were not having it, including Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“Prescribed burning in April and during the windy season… has no business being in (the forest management) equation,” she said during a press conference in early May as the fires were growing and forcing alerts and evacuations of resort communities like Angel Fire and Sipapu to the north.

“We’re going to have to figure it out. But this cannot occur again, anywhere in the U.S.,” she added.

Within weeks, somewhat surprisingly, the federal government complied, at least for now.

“Today, because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field, I am initiating a pause on prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a statement on May 20.

While Moore’s statement made no specific mention of the fires in New Mexico, which continue to be the largest burning in the country, it did come almost immediately after he and other officials met with Lujan Grisham in Washington last Friday.

“I am glad to hear that, following my conversation with U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service leadership earlier today, the Forest Service will implement a 90-day pause and review of prescribed burns on federal lands,” the Governor said Friday.

Moore said the pause will not affect the vast majority of the agency’s burn projects, which typically take place between September and May. He notes that the Forest Service conducts around 4,500 prescribed fire projects annually.

“In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned.”

Unfortunately, the losses caused by one of the fires in that other .16 percent could exceed a billion dollars by the time the flames are out in northern New Mexico.

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