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FRI: US Forest Service says prescribed burn also initiated Calf Canyon Fire, + More

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Alice Fordham
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KUNM
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire has caused extensive damage to forests in northern New Mexico.

US Forest Service: Prescribed burns initiated massive fire - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanacio Associated Press

Two fires that merged to create the largest wildfire in New Mexico history have both been traced to prescribed burns set by U.S. forest managers as preventative measures, federal investigators announced Friday.

The findings could hold implications for the future use of prescribed fire to limit the buildup of dry vegetation amid a U.S. Forest Service moratorium on the practice. They also could affect complex deliberations concerning emergency aid and liability for a fire that has spread across 486 square miles and destroyed hundreds of structures.

The two fires joined in April to form the massive Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, in the Sangre de Cristo range.

The Hermits Peak Fire was previously traced to April 6, when a prescribed burn, set by firefighters to clear out small trees and brush that can fuel wildfires, was declared out of control.

On Friday, investigators said they had tracked the source of the Calf Canyon Fire to the remnants of a prescribed winter fire that lay dormant through several snowstorms only to flare up again last month.

Investigators said the prescribed "pile burn" was initiated in January at Gallinas Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest outside Las Vegas, New Mexico, and concluded in the final days of that month. Fire was reported again in the same vicinity on April 9 and escaped control 10 days later amid dry, hot and windy conditions, Forest Service investigators found.

Scientists and forest managers are racing to develop new tools to forecast the behavior of prescribed fires amid climate change and an enduring drought in the American West. Prescribed fires are aimed at limiting the accumulation of timber and underbrush that, if left unattended, can fuel extremely hot and destructive wildfires.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a statement called the investigation results a "first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility" for the New Mexico wildfire. She highlighted her pending request to President Joe Biden to direct the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay for 100% of costs related to a broad range of recovery efforts.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week announced a 90-day pause and review of protocols for prescribed fires that limit the buildup of flammable vegetation that can lead to extremely hot and uncontrollable wildfire. He did not specifically link the review to fires in New Mexico.

"It will also ensure the prescribed burn program nationwide is anchored in the most contemporary science, policies, practices and decision-making processes, and that employees, partners and communities have the support they need to continue using this critical tool to confront the wildfire crisis," the agency said in a statement Friday.

So-called pile burns can often include wildland debris collected over months or even years. Forest managers cut back trees and gather debris into mounds, preferring to burn forest fuels in the winter when prescribes burns are easier to control.

In January, Santa Fe National Forest workers started burning through a series of piles across an area of 0.6 square miles, after advising the public of possible smoke hazards.

Navajo sign water rights settlement with Utah and feds - Associated Press

Federal officials signed an agreement with leaders of the Navajo Nation on Friday that provides funding for clean drinking water infrastructure for reservation residents and resolves questions about longstanding Navajo claims to water rights in the drought-stricken U.S. West.

The signing formalizes the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement, which became law in 2020 as part of President Joe Biden's bipartisan infrastructure bill. As part of the agreement, the federal government will pay the Navajo Nation $210 million for drinking water infrastructure in San Juan County — the part of the 27,00-square-mile reservation that lies in Utah.

Many Navajo homes lack running water. Residents often fill containers at public taps or rely on water deliveries from volunteer organizations.

"As we seek to strengthen Indigenous communities and support tribal self-governance, today's action and all of these investments will help provide the Navajo Nation with autonomy and flexibility to design and build appropriate water projects that will address current and future water needs," U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said at a signing ceremony on the Navajo Nation.

Utah, which was also party to the agreement, will pay the Navajo $8 million as part of the settlement.

"We had two real problems in our state. One was the Navajo Nation had claims to the Colorado (River) that would impair Utah's water rights," U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The other concern we had was about half the Navajo Nation residents (in Utah) didn't have running water."

The settlement also quantifies the Navajo Nation's water rights, quelling Utah's anxieties about its long-standing claims to a share of water, including from the Colorado River.

A 1908 court decision said tribes had rights to as much water as was needed to establish permanent homelands. Though they possess senior rights, the Navajo were left out when seven western states divided up shares as part of the Colorado River Compact a century ago.

The subsequent uncertainty and potential legal battles have emerged as an urgent issue as the region reckons with a hotter, drier future with less Colorado River water to be shared.

The settlement recognizes the Navajo's right to 81,500 acre-feet of Utah water and allows them to draw the water from aquifers, rivers or Lake Powell, if they choose. The agreement also allows the Navajo to lease unused water to entities off the reservation and guarantees they won't lose water rights not put to use.

It's one of 16 tribal water rights settlements that the Biden administration is devoting $1.7 billion to fund from the recently enacted federal infrastructure bill.

"The hard work, however, must continue until all homes across the Navajo Nation have clean water running in faucets for all Navajo families," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told the newspaper.

New Mexicans affected by wildfire get tax return extension By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

Residents of the five counties in New Mexico most affected by this year’s wildfires can wait until late August to file their personal or corporate income tax returns, the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department announced Thursday.

Residents of Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties are covered under the extensions. They are eligible if they live in the disaster areas or if their principal places of business are there, too, according to a news release.

Taxpayers in those counties who file other business returns like gross receipts, compensating and withholding tax, oil and gas tax, combined fuel tax and other excise taxes qualify for an extended filing due date of Aug. 25.

Because of the extensions, penalties and interest will not be added, as long as returns are filed and taxes paid by the extended deadline, the department said.

The same extension has been granted by the Internal Revenue Service for federal taxes, according to Tax and Rev.

If you’re filing with the state using paper copies of taxes, write “wildfire extension” at the top.

FOR NON-ELECTRONIC FILERS, SEND A LETTER TO: 

Taxation and Revenue Department

P.O. Box 5418 Santa Fe, NM 87502-5418

New Mexico wildfire nears 50% containment as weather shifts - Associated Press

Crews in northern New Mexico have cleared and cut containment lines around nearly half of the perimeter of the nation's largest active wildfire while bracing for a return of weather conditions that might fan flames and send embers aloft, officials said Thursday.

The 7-week-old fire east of Santa Fe was boxed in around 46% of its 635-mile perimeter, enclosing an area larger than Oklahoma City.

Recent weather that included lighter winds, cloud cover and light rain and snow in some areas helped firefighters' effort to surround the fire and slow its growth. But forecasts for Friday and through the holiday weekend call for higher temperatures, less humidity and stronger winds.

The National Weather Service issued fire weather watches for the region on Saturday.

Fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner said at a briefing Thursday night he doesn't expect "any big growth" in the blaze on Friday, but that could change because "we are extremely dry."

Saturday "should be a big fire day ... as well as Sunday and Monday, and probably Tuesday," he said. "Stay tuned and see how those days start shaping up, but they're not looking all that good for fire weather."

Crews continued to battle a handful of other large fires in New Mexico and Arizona in areas of forest, brush and grass in a region that many fire managers have described as "ripe and ready to burn" due to a megadrought that has spanned decades and warm and windy conditions brought on by climate change.

Jayson Coil, an operations section chief, said crews were clearing containment lines and retracing their steps in some areas to strengthen lines already in place.

The expected high winds could ground aircraft that have supported ground crews and bulldozer operators by dropping water on hot spots, Coil said Thursday.

"Everything we're doing right now is to make sure we're prepared for the potential of high winds and the limitations that those brings, along with the potential for large fire growth," Coil said.

New Mexico Democrats seek new gun restrictions, enforcement - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Responses from public officials in New Mexico to the killing of 19 children and two teachers by a lone gunman at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, are falling along partisan lines when it comes to proposals to improve public safety and regulating access to guns.

Democratic candidates for the state's top law enforcement job say New Mexico needs new gun control legislation, more enforcement resources for gun safety, or both. A top Republican Party official said Thursday that gun control is not the right answer.

In a Wednesday night debate, state auditor and Democratic candidate for attorney general Brian Colón said he supports legislation to ensure safe gun storage proposed by legislators including state Rep. Pamelya Herndon of Albuquerque.

A failed bill from Herndon this year would have established gun storage requirements and established new crimes with misdemeanor and felony penalties for recklessly making a firearm available to a minor.

Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raúl Torrez — also seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general — said law enforcement agencies need greater funding and training to harness New Mexico's 2020 "red flag" law that allows police or sheriff's deputies to ask a court to temporarily take away guns from people who might hurt themselves or others. The legislation was proposed in response a racist attack targeting Hispanics at a Walmart in El Paso that killed 23 people in 2019.

Torrez also said parents who fail to secure firearms from child access need to be held accountable, and that he supports the creation of a gun-violence prevention office within the state Department of Health.

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce on Thursday said that "gun control is not the answer" to school safety concerns.

"We must provide better security, more police presence, metal detectors, one-point secure entrances and take other appropriate measures to make our schools a safe place for all," Pearce said in a statement.

Since Tuesday's school shooting, Democratic governors and lawmakers across the country have issued impassioned pleas for Congress and their own legislatures to pass gun restrictions. Republicans have mostly called for more efforts to address mental health and to shore up protections at schools, such as adding security guards.

Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says elected officials should do everything they can to reverse the proliferation of firearms.

"We must do everything in our power to reduce the number of firearms and deadly weapons on our streets to make sure that everyone in this country lives in peace and free of fear," said Lujan Grisham in a statement.

Since 2019, Lujan Grisham has signed a raft of legislation that restricts access to guns, including an extension of background-check requirements to nearly all private gun sales and a ban on firearms possession for people under permanent protective orders for domestic violence.

Five Republican candidates are vying for the nomination in New Mexico's June 7 primary for the chance to challenge Lujan Grisham as she runs for a second term.

The Uvalde attack was the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. in nearly a decade.

Law enforcement officers killed the shooter, identified as a local 18-year-old who had shot and wounded his grandmother and spelled out his violent plans in online messages shortly before the massacre at Robb Elementary. Investigators say they don't yet know a motive.

Public lands commissioner pledged to refuse fossil fuel money, opponent hasn’t raised any - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

With the climate crisis intensifying wildfires in New Mexico and across the West, one candidate for public lands commissioner pledged to refuse any money from extractive industries. The other appears to have not raised any money at all.

Northern New Mexico has had days that are 15 degrees Fahrenheit above normal temperatures for this time of year, according to Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA). New Mexico and much of western United States has for years been in a megadrought, which scientists say is caused in part by climate change.

Increasing emissions speed up climate change, accelerating rising temperatures — the root cause of wildfires getting worse here and across the globe, according to a report released in February by UNEP and GRID-Arendal.

The study found that climate change and human conversion of land, usually forests, for agricultural use are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a 50% global increase of extreme fires by the end of the century.

In response to questions from Source New Mexico, incumbent Stephanie Garcia Richard said there is no clearer message that we are facing the perils of a changing climate “than witnessing the beating heart of our state burn to the ground.”

“In addition to the loss of private property, we are seeing forests, habitats, watersheds and viewsheds burn that will not recover in our lifetimes,” she said. “Increased fuel loads, lower dew points, single-digit humidity, and longer and stronger windy seasons have all led us to this place.”

Her office has the authority to implement a fire ban on all the land it manages statewide, totaling 9 million acres, Garcia Richard said.

Unlike Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Garcia Richard opposes so-called blue hydrogen, which is developed from natural gas.

“We’ve rejected two applications for blue hydrogen projects,” Garcia Richard said. Both were research proposals, she said, one from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and another from an unnamed private company.

She said she is one of the only people on the New Mexico State Investment Council who is “championing investments in renewable energy and stopping hydrogen.”

“We will continue our effort to go beyond tripling our renewable energy portfolio,” she said.

She said she also opposes nuclear energy and the development of Hydrogen Production Hubs here in New Mexico.

“If the discussion centered around development of green hydrogen, I believe it could be a real renewable industry,” she said. “But blue hydrogen – no. I have already denied two requests to establish blue hydrogen operations on state trust land.”

Asked whether her opposition to blue hydrogen has led to any friction with the governor’s office, Garcia Richard said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Garcia Richard also supports placing a moratorium on new gas development in the state of New Mexico, placing a moratorium on new gas plant investment for utilities in New Mexico. Her office has the authority to influence applications to the Land Office for those kinds of uses or development, she said.

YUCCA on May 16 released its endorsements of candidates running for office in the 2022 primary elections, backing Garcia Richard.

As of Thursday, commissioner of public lands is the only statewide race YUCCA weighed in on so far.

Garcia Richard is a former state lawmaker from Silver City who was elected as commissioner in 2018.

Her only opponent in the race is Republican Jefferson Byrd, a member of the state’s Public Regulation Commission from Tucumcari.

Former Public Lands Commissioner Aubrey Dunn filed to run in the Republican primary for the seat in March but was disqualified later that month by the Secretary of State’s Office.

YUCCA said they sent the same exact set of questions to Byrd that they sent to Garcia Richard, but he did not respond.

As of Wednesday, Byrd’s campaign had only turned in one campaign finance report, which showed no money raised at all, according to campaign finance records.

NO COMMENT

As of press time on Wednesday, Byrd did not respond to multiple emails and voicemail messages seeking comment for this story. We’ll update this story if we here back.

INCUMBENT REFUSING DONATIONS FROM EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES

Garcia Richard has taken the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, in which she agreed to adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs, lobbyists or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies.

She said the brunt of the impacts we face due to climate change will be put on those who contributed the least emissions, including people living in the global South outside of Europe and North America, Indigenous communities, and communities with lower incomes.

YUCCA asked Garcia Richard whether she agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reversed within eight years in order to achieve carbon neutrality in time to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees and to avoid catastrophic runaway climate disruption. She told them yes.

YUCCA asked Garcia Richard what specific policies she would pursue next year to begin rapidly transitioning the economy to achieve carbon neutrality in the timeframe set by the world’s leading scientists.

She pointed to her work as land commissioner to end future oil and gas leasing in Chaco Canyon, and to plug and remediate oil and gas wells. She said she would “continue to fight against produced water and strengthen all regulatory rules.”

Garcia Richard also told YUCCA there must be a Just Energy Transition Fund, which would identify alternative revenue sources for the New Mexico state budget and allocate funds from oil and gas directly into community-driven climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

That includes the people living in San Miguel and Mora Counties, thousands of whom have fled the massive Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire. The median annual income there is about $20,000 and $15,000, respectively, according to the census.

Garcia Richard said in an emailed response to questions from Source NM that the land office has worked with land managers, including the Bureau of Land Management, on thinning projects that reduce fuel loads on large landscapes in heavily forested areas.

“We believe this work will serve to mitigate from catastrophic fire events by lessening the dense understory, creating natural fire breaks and allowing for fire suppression teams to more easily move throughout forested areas,” Garcia Richard said.

Her office has also aided in the restoration of healthy watersheds vital to such an arid state while banning the use of fresh water for fracking on state land, she said. And the office has worked to protect vulnerable areas like Chaco Canyon from further fossil fuel development, while trying to lessen New Mexico’s reliance on fossil fuels, transitioning to other uses of state land like renewable energy and outdoor recreation.

She hired a landscape level planner who is piloting programs that she said are meant to make the ecosystem more fire resilient.

For example, Garcia Richard said over the course of 2022, the planner will create a comprehensive transportation plan for thousands of acres of state land in the Whites Peak area including parts of Mora and Colfax counties to ensure public access while limiting damage to non-developed areas.

This requires collaborating with state, local and tribal officials because of the “checkerboard” of isolated or noncontiguous sections of lands right next to each other but owned by the state government, the federal government, tribes and private owners.

“Because of the checkerboard nature of our state, the work we do on restoration and remediation has to be done in partnership with our fellow land managers,” she said, “or else the benefits of the work we do on state land ends at the imaginary border because fire doesn’t recognize boundaries.”

Officials explain false alarm Rio Grande Bosque evacuation orderKUNM, Albuquerque Journal

A 34-acre fire that broke out on both sides of Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Bosque near Candelaria and Montaño was fully contained by Wednesday night––however, an evacuation order from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office was issued just after the blaze was put under control.

That was retracted shortly after.

Now, the Sheriff’s Office points the finger at “miscommunication” as the culprit and no homes were ever in danger from the flames.

Nonetheless, this caused residents in the area to panic as an emergency notification was sent to phones and local TV outlets broadcasted an alert––some even started to hose down their homes and flee.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that Bernalillo County Fire Chief Brian Rose traced the issue to a “misinterpretation” by their dispatch center.

No structures were threatened and nobody was reported to be injured from the fire.

A spokesman with Albuquerque Fire Rescue said the Bosque trails and open spaces will remain open unless they present an immediate threat to the public. Parks and Recreation Director David Simon asked the community to be their eyes and to be vigilant for any new fires.

Residents can check for open space closures and other fire related information at cabq.gov/wildfires.

APS board holds off on approving nearly $2 billion budget as deadline quickly approaches - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education has tabled discussion of its budget ahead of a May 31 deadline.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the district leaders narrowly approved the motion to hold off on sending the budget to the Public Education Department on a 4-3 vote Wednesday.

The proposed budget was for $1.9 billion dollars, up from $1.87 billion dollars last year, which concerned some board members who wanted more details about what had changed and the potential impact of the increase on schools, students and programs.

Those who voted against stalling the proposal expressed concern over the delay with a deadline to submit it to PED for review approaching next week. Superintendent Scott Elder says he’ll meet with state Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus to discuss the possibility of an extension.

In the meantime, Elder says he’ll work with budget planners to get APS board members more information to inform their decisions.

State law requires a final budget to be approved by June 20 and finalized by July 1.