SANTA FE, N.M — Two fires that combined to form the largest wildfire in New Mexico history have both been traced to mandatory burns set by U.S. forest managers as preventative measures, federal investigators said Friday.
The findings put responsibility more directly on the US Forest Service for triggering a natural disaster that destroyed at least 330 homes as blazes raged through nearly 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of high altitude pine forest and meadows. The wildfire has also displaced and simultaneously unleashed thousands of residents from rural villages with Spanish colonial roots and high rates of poverty immeasurable environmental damage.
About 3,000 firefighters, along with hydrophobic planes and helicopters, continue to battle the blaze as it approaches mountain resorts and Native American communities. Firefighting costs are already exceeding $132 million and growing at $5 million a day.
Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández described a growing sense of outrage as the fire sparks new evacuations of families and livestock. Fear of flames gives way to concerns about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fires invade soil and roots.
“The devastation caused by these two fires is immeasurable and will be felt for generations to come,” said Leger Fernández, sponsor of a bill that would compensate residents and businesses displaced by the blaze.
The Forest Service has yet to release detailed planning documents for the initially mandated burns that would indicate whether fire protocols were being followed.
scientists and foresters race to develop new tools to predict the behavior of mandated fires amid climate change and a prolonged drought in the American West. Mandated fires aim to limit the accumulation of wood and undergrowth which, if left unattended, can fuel extremely hot and destructive wildfires.
The Biden administration announced this in January a $50 billion plan to avert catastrophic wildfires that would more than double the use of controlled fires and logging to reduce trees and other vegetation serving as tinder in the most vulnerable areas. Prescribed burns are often used in wild areas that are too large to be thinned by hand or machine.
The two fires east of Santa Fe combined in April to form a massive blaze at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
One of the fires was previously traced to April 6, when a mandatory burn, laid by firefighters to clear small trees and brushwood, got out of control.
On Friday, investigators said they traced the source of the second fire to the remains of a prescribed winter fire that lay dormant through several snowstorms, only to flare up again last month.
Investigators said the mandated “pile burn” began in January at Gallinas Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was completed in the final days of this month. Another fire was reported in the same area on April 9 and escaped control 10 days later in dry, hot and windy conditions, Forest Service investigators found.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that the test results were a “first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility” for the New Mexico wildfire. She highlighted her pending request for President Joe Biden to direct the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay 100% of costs related to a wide range of recovery efforts.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week announced a 90-day hiatus and reviewing protocols for mandated fires that limit the buildup of combustible vegetation. He cited extreme fire hazards and inclement weather and did not specifically link the review to the New Mexico fires.
“It will also ensure that the mandated burn program is embodied in the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, policies, practices and decision-making processes nationwide, and that employees, partners and communities have the support they need to continue using this critical tool to address the wildfire crisis.” , the agency said in a statement on Friday.
Moore said prescribed fires go as planned more than 99% of the time. Notable exceptions include the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which swept through national security installations and residential neighborhoods in Los Alamos.
So-called stake fires can often include wildland debris collected over months or even years. Forest managers cut down trees and collect rubble into mounds, preferring to burn forest fuels in winter when mandated burns are easier to control.
In January, workers at the Santa Fe National Forest began burning a series of piles covering a mile (1.5 km) after alerting the public to potential smoke hazards.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/ Report for the America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. consequences Attanasio on Twitter.
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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/05/27/us-review-traces-massive-new-mexico-fire-to-prescribed-burns/ The US review attributes the massive New Mexico fire to mandatory burns