US Forest Service admits ‘multiple miscalculations’ caused fires in New Mexico

The agency said U.S. Forest Service employees made several inaccurate estimates, used inaccurate models and underestimated dry conditions in the southwest, reducing the risk of wildfires in New Mexico’s recorded history. The risk of major fires has been reduced. on Tuesday.

The agency quietly posted an 80-page review detailing the plan’s missteps and conditions on the ground as the crew ignited the scheduled fire in early April. The report said officials planning the operation underestimated the amount of wood and vegetation available to douse the flames, threatening exceptionally dry conditions and rural villages and water supplies if things go wrong. Got messed up.

Within hours of lighting a test fire that April day, several fires were reported outside control lines and not having enough resources or water to put them out.

“The devastating impact of this fire to the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico calls for this level of review so that we can better understand how this tragic event unfolded,” wrote US Forest Chief Randy Moore. “I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these effects are on communities and individuals.”

As of Tuesday, the fire had burned more than 533 square miles (1,380 sq km), making it the largest fire to burn this spring in the US. This comes during a particularly brutal season in which the risk of fire in the surrounding forests of the West has reached historic levels due to decades of drought and hot weather caused by the climate crisis.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the number of acres burned so far this year is two and a half times the national average for the past 10 years. So far 31,000 wildfires have burned more than 5,000 square miles (12,950 sq km) in the US.

Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak fire flows over Las Vegas, New Mexico. Photograph: Robert Brownman / AP

Anger and frustration are boiling between residents and elected officials in northern New Mexico, where several hundred homes have been destroyed and thousands displaced.

Many mountains have turned to ash and the once giant ponderosa pine trees have been turned into burnt toothpicks. Places considered sacred by animal husbandry and farming families who have called the area home for generations have been wiped out.

US Representative Teresa Léger Fernandez described the Forest Service review as incredibly disturbing, pointing to the use of old data to plan scheduled burns and the “cascade of errors” that followed.

She said the failures of the Forest Service destroyed many prosperous and proud New Mexico communities.

“These are complicated issues. Starting to burn in an area where there are homes and watersheds and communities should be something that you take incredibly seriously because they are high-value assets,” she said. “Communities did not value the historical nature and therefore proceeded, allowing more risk than they should have.”

Leger Fernandez also said that with the hope of rain on the burn marks, the danger of another disaster is looming.

As a result of the fires, the Forest Service suspended scheduled burn operations across the US in May, pending its nationwide review, which required updating protocols, policies or procedures based on changing conditions due to drought and the climate crisis. will identify.

The report stated that the crew believed they were within approved limits for the planned burn and that they had plans to build a line where they could check on the progress of the fire and see if the parameters were exceeded. If you did, you could have stopped the ignition.

But according to a Forest Service analysis of fuel and weather information, the fire was burning in much drier conditions than the crew understood.

“Persistent drought, limited snow and rain, fine fuel accumulation, and burn unit preparedness increase the risk of fuel loading escape,” the report said.

A combination of on-site weather forecasts and on-site observations were the only methods of weather collection. The days before the ignition of the scheduled fires were described as a “weather roller coaster”, and the agency said more data should have been used to assess the conditions.

The report also noted that managers failed to accurately assess the complexity of the planned burn, providing a picture that indicates the risk was reduced when in fact it was not.

The scheduled burn was part of a plan adopted for the first time in 2019 to reduce the risk of wildfires in the Gallinas watershed. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was disappointed that Forest Service planning documents related to the project were re-approved each year without adjusting for the worsening drought since then.

She said in a statement that it did not appear that anyone involved in the burning was being held responsible for “significant mistakes”.

It was not immediately clear whether the Forest Service took any disciplinary action, but the report includes policies and proposed recommendations to improve performance.

The report said that on several occasions before and after the test fire before the scheduled burns, some personnel felt that dry conditions would result in a higher risk but accepted the assignment.

Leger Fernandez said his request for an independent investigation has been granted. It will oversee federal prescribed fire policies across the country.

Joe Biden recently flew over the fire and stopped briefly in New Mexico to reassure residents that the federal government would take responsibility for its role in starting the fire.