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KUNM News Update

TUES: Massive New Mexico blaze blamed on miscalculations and errors, + More

Hermit's Peak Tree Burn
Shaun Griswold
/
Source NM
A burn scar from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in Mora County.

Massive New Mexico blaze blamed on miscalculations, errors - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

President Joe Biden recently flew over the fire and stopped briefly in New Mexico to assure residents the federal government would take responsibility for

U.S. Forest Service employees made multiple miscalculations, used inaccurate models and underestimated how dry conditions were in the Southwest, causing a planned burn to reduce the threat of wildfires to explode into the largest blaze in New Mexico's recorded history, the agency said Tuesday.

The agency quietly posted an 80-page review that details the planning missteps and the conditions on the ground as crews ignited the prescribed fire in early April. The report states officials who planned the operation underestimated the amount of timber and vegetation that was available to fuel the flames, the exceptional dry conditions and the rural villages and water supplies that would be threatened if things went awry.

Within hours of declaring the test fire a success that day, multiple spot fires were reported outside containment lines and there were not enough resources or water to rein them in.

"The devastating impact of this fire to the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico demanded this level of review to ensure we understand how this tragic event unfolded," U.S. Forest Chief Randy Moore wrote. "I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals."

As of Tuesday, the blaze had charred more than 533 square miles, making it the largest fire to have burned this spring in the U.S. It comes during a particularly ferocious season in which fire danger in overgrown forests around the West has reached historic levels due to decades of drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change.

The number of acres burned so far this year is more than two and half times the national average for the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far, 31,000 wildfires have burned more than 5,000 square miles in the United States.

Anger and frustration have been simmering among residents and elected officials in northern New Mexico, where hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of residents were displaced.

Many mountainsides have been reduced to ash and once towering ponderosa pine trees have been turned into charred toothpicks. Spots considered sacred by the ranching and farming families who have called the region home for generations have been wiped out.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández called the Forest Service review incredibly disturbing, pointing to the use of outdated data to plan for the prescribed burn and the "cascade of errors" that followed.

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

"These are complex issues. Starting a prescribed burn in an area where there are homes and watersheds and communities should be something that you take incredibly serious because those are high value assets," she said. "They did not value the resources, the communities, the historic nature of these communities and so they went forward allowing more risk than they should have."

Leger Fernández also said threats of a second disaster are looming with rainfall expected over the burn scars.

As a result of the fire, the Forest Service in May suspended prescribed burn operations across the U.S. pending its own nationwide review that will identify the need to update protocols, policies or procedures based on changing conditions due to drought and climate change.

The report on the New Mexico fire stated that the crew members believed they were within the approved limits for the planned burn and had a plan to construct a line where they could check the fire's progress and cease ignitions if the parameters were exceeded.

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

"Persistent drought, limited snow and rain, fine fuel accumulation, and fuel loading from burn unit preparation all contributed to increasing the risk of escape," the report stated.

A mix of spot weather forecasts and on-site observations were the only methods of weather collection used. The days preceding the ignition of the prescribed fire were described as a "weather roller coaster," and the agency said more data should have been used to assess the conditions.

The report also said managers failed to accurately assess the complexity of the planned burn, providing a picture that indicated risks has been reduced when in fact that wasn't the case.

The prescribed burn was part of a plan first adopted in 2019 to reduce the risk of wildfire in the Gallinas Watershed. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was frustrated that Forest Service planning documents related to the project were re-approved each year since then without adjustments being made to account for the worsening drought.

She said in a statement that it does not appear anyone involved in the burn was being held accountable for what she called "significant mistakes."

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

The report states that on several occasions before and after a test fire ahead of the prescribed burn was lit, some personnel felt that the dry conditions would result in higher risk but they accepted the assignment.

Leger Fernández said her request for an independent investigation has been approved. It will look at federal prescribed fire policies nationwide.

New Mexico rolls out COVID vaccines for children as young as 6 months old - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Many of the youngest New Mexicans can now get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The state Department of Health announced Tuesday that children from as young as 6 months old up through 4 years old are now eligible to get the shots, following FDA approval for the age group Friday.

DOH said in a news release that clinics across the state began receiving doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines Monday and that, by next week, the state should have received between 5,000 and 7,500 doses. The state says more will continue to arrive after that, and that there will be enough for all newly-eligible children to get vaccinated.

There are over 2,200 vaccination appointments available statewide, according to the statement, and DOH says that number will increase as more providers receive their allotted vaccine doses and sign up to administer them.

The appointments can be booked online at vaccineNM.org.

DOH warns parents that some pharmacy locations are age-restricted, and that it’s likely that three out of every four children in this youngest age group will be vaccinated by a primary care provider or other practitioner, in contrast to how most older New Mexicans got their shots.

Jan. 6 takeaways: Trump's state playbook; 'hateful' threats - By Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press

A House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection is turning to former President Donald Trump's pressure campaign on state and local officials to overturn his 2020 election loss.

In its fourth hearing this month, the panel examined how Trump focused on a few swing states, directly urging officials to decertify President Joe Biden's victory or find additional votes for himself. It was part of a larger scheme that also involved dozens of lawsuits, pressure on Department of Justice officials and, eventually, lobbying Vice President Mike Pence to reject Biden's win at the congressional electoral count on Jan. 6.

"Pressuring public servants into betraying their oaths was a fundamental part of the playbook," the committee's chairman, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said of Trump and his allies. "And a handful of election officials in several key states stood between Donald Trump and the upending of American democracy."

'THEY DID THEIR JOBS'

The panel is keeping to a tight narrative as it makes its case to the American public that Trump's efforts to overturn his defeat directly led to the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, when hundreds of his supporters broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden's victory.

The witnesses at Tuesday's hearing were all public officials who were directly lobbied by Trump or who received threats for doing their jobs after Trump persuaded millions of his followers — with no evidence — that he had actually won, not lost, the election.

Arizona's Republican state House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified in person, spoke about phone calls from Trump and his allies asking him to decertify Arizona's legitimate electors and replace them. Bowers said he repeatedly asked Trump's attorneys to show evidence of widespread fraud, but they never provided any.

"You are asking me to do something against my oath, and I will not break my oath," Bowers said he told them. He recalled John Eastman, a chief architect of Trump's plan to create slates of fake electors, telling him to "just do it and let the courts sort it out."

Bowers also responded to Trump's comments, released in a statement before the hearing, claiming he had told the president that the Arizona election was rigged. "I did have a conversation with the president," Bowers said. "That certainly isn't it."

Other state officials told similar stories in videotaped testimony. Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler said he got repeated calls from Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other Trump aides, but he refused to answer them. The calls continued even after Cutler asked them to stop.

FOCUS ON GEORGIA

Trump's pressure was most intense in Georgia, where Biden narrowly won after years of GOP presidential victories in the state. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy, Gabe Sterling, testified about becoming two of the president's top targets as he floated conspiracy theories and as they refused to back down to his pressure.

The committee played audio of the call where Trump asked the officials there to "find 11,780" votes that could flip the state to prevent Biden's election victory.

"There were not votes to find," Raffensperger said.

Raffensperger said he and his team went through "every single allegation," and down every "rabbit hole," that Trump and his allies presented to state election officials. But Trump wouldn't accept it. He told Raffensperger that it could only be dishonesty or incompetence that they couldn't find the necessary amount of votes.

Competing against Trump's false statements was like a "shovel trying to empty the ocean," said Sterling, who spoke out publicly against Trump's pressure in the weeks after the election. Sterling said he couldn't convince even some of his own family members that the election outcome was valid.

THREATS TO PUBLIC OFFICIALS

The hearing also examined how Trump's threats put state officials in danger.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson talked about how her "stomach sunk" when she heard the sounds of protesters outside her home one night after the election when she was putting her child to bed. She wondered if they had guns or were going to attack her house. "That was the scariest moment," not knowing what's going to happen, Benson said.

Another Michigan official, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, told the committee about receiving 4,000 text messages after Trump published his phone number online. Cutler, the Pennsylvania House speaker, said his information was also revealed online, prompting protesters to show up at his house when his 15 year-old son was home alone.

Arizona's Bowers told stories of people outside his house on loudspeakers and one man with a gun who verbally threatened his neighbor. He teared up as he spoke of his daughter, who he said was "gravely ill," and his wife becoming upset as people swarmed outside.

'HATEFUL' MESSAGES AND LIVES UPENDED

Some of the day's most emotional testimony came from two former election workers in Georgia who have seen their lives turned upside down after Trump and Giuliani spread false conspiracy theories that they were engaging in ballot fraud.

The Justice Department has debunked claims that Wandrea "Shaye" Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, introduced suitcases of illegal ballots and committed other acts of election fraud to try to alter the outcome.

Through tears, Moss said she no longer leaves her house after she was targeted by Trump, who mentioned them by name in the call with Raffensperger.

Moss, who is Black, told of receiving "hateful," racist and violent threats. She recalled that one of them said, "Be glad it's 2020 and not 1920." At one point protesters showed up at her grandmother's house.

"It has affected my life in a major way, in every way, all because of lies," Moss said.

The committee played videotaped testimony with Freeman, who also sat in the hearing room behind her daughter. Freeman told the panel that she used to own shirts in every color with her name on it — Lady Ruby, as she's known in her community — advertising her small business. But she no longer wears them.

"I've lost my name, and I've lost my reputation. I've lost my sense of security," Freeman said.

INVOLVEMENT OF GOP LAWMAKERS

While the committee has had a hard time getting GOP lawmakers to do interviews — five House Republicans have so far defied the panel's subpoenas — the committee revealed some additional detail about what Trump's allies in Congress were doing at the time of the insurrection.

The committee revealed a text from an aide to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., to an aide for then-Vice President Mike Pence the morning of Jan. 6 saying that the senator wanted to personally hand Pence an "alternate slate of electors for MI and WI."

"Do not give that to him," Pence aide Chris Hodgson replied. The vice president released a statement around the same time making it clear that he would do his ceremonial duty and declare Biden the next president.

Johnson's spokeswoman Alexa Henning responded Tuesday that "The vice president's office said not to give it to him and we did not. There was no further action taken. End of story."

Bowers also revealed that Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, one of the lawmakers subpoenaed by the panel, asked him the morning of Jan. 6 to sign on to a letter saying he would support the certification of fake electors.

"I said I would not," Bowers said.

___

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

No floods reported over weekend, but they’re expected soon in the burn zones - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico 

Residents in northern New Mexico are preparing for floods and solidifying evacuation plans, but so far, no floods have been reported.

There is a flood watch for Mora County and San Miguel County around the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire for Tuesday. This doesn’t mean it will flood, but it is possible.

Niki Carpenter, spokesperson with Southwest Area Incident Management Team 5 for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, said the weather may “dump higher volumes of water in one location through a sustained period of time,” which can cause flooding.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire is still listed as being at 72% containment, as it has been for the last five days, and Carpenter said this is mainly due to a delay in land assessment because of time and risk factors. She said containment numbers will probably go up soon, but a lot of the area has been inaccessible because of the weather.

“They don’t want to increase the number without being 100% positive,” she said.

The area of concern right now is around Pecos River and Hamilton Mesa Trail, where the fire burned into wilderness and larger fuels have a harder time absorbing humidity and rain, she said.

Over the weekend, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire received anywhere from one-quarter inch of rain to three-quarters of an inch, depending on location, noted meteorologist Andrew Gorelow with the National Weather Service. He said the rain was “slow and steady,” as opposed to the quick bursts of a lot of rain that can cause floods, but that may change in the coming days.

FLOOD WATCH ONGOING FOR BLACK FIRE REGION

No flooding has been reported in southern New Mexico near the Black Fire yet, said Stefan La-Sky, spokesperson with the team in command of the fire. There is a flood watch until Wednesday morning.

He said minimal rain reached the wildfire over the weekend, but humidity overnight helped with containment and allowed firefighters to cease night shifts. He expects increased containment in the coming days.

The amount of water in the atmosphere around the Black Fire could hit record levels later in the week, said Gary Zell, National Weather Service meteorologist.

“The atmosphere is loaded with moisture and any thunderstorm … now that we’ve had some precipitation on the fire, it can definitely cause flash flooding,” Zell said.

Crews fighting the Black Fire have shifted from full suppression efforts to repair with tasks like cleaning up fire lines and picking up brush from limbs and trees, La-Sky said.

With expectation for increased rain over the next few days, firefighters are cautious of areas that could flash flood, La-Sky said.

The Black Fire area saw a range of precipitation in various areas over the weekend, Zell said, from one-quarter of an inch to an inch and a half in some parts. But a lot of it missed the fire, La-Sky noted.

Tribal leaders and feds reestablish Bears Ears Commission - By Sam Metz Associated Press

Federal officials and tribal nations have formally reestablished a commission to oversee land management decisions at a national monument in Utah — among the first such joint governance agreements signed by Native Americans and U.S. officials.

Leaders from agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service met with representatives from five tribal nations Saturday to sign a document formalizing the Bears Ears Commission, a governing body tasked with day-to-day decisions on the 2,125 square-mile Bears Ears National Monument.

In 2021, President Joe Biden restored two sprawling national monuments in southern Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — reversing a decision by President Donald Trump that opened for mining and other development hundreds of thousands of acres of rugged lands sacred to Native Americans and home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.

Together, the monuments encompass an area nearly the size of Connecticut, and were created by Democratic administrations under a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historic, geographically or culturally important.

Tribes have long sought a larger role in their oversight.

"This is an important step as we move forward together to ensure that Tribal expertise and traditional perspectives remain at the forefront of our joint decision-making for the Bears Ears National Monument. This type of true co-management will serve as a model for our work to honor the nation-to-nation relationship in the future," said Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning, one of the agreement's signatories.

The Bears Ears Commission and Obama-era joint governance plan was altered to the chagrin of tribal officials when Trump downsized the monument in 2017. The five nations, all of which were driven off land included in the monument, are the Hopi, the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

"Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future. We are being asked to apply our traditional knowledge to both the natural and human-caused ecological challenges, drought, erosion, visitation, etc.," said Bears Ears Commission Co-Chair and Lieutenant Governor of Zuni Pueblo Carleton Bowekaty.

Tribes also play a role in jointly managing some resources within national park units, including Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the Navajo Nation and Point Reyes National Seashore on the historic lands of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo in California.

NM state epidemiologist leaving next monthBy Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, a top infectious disease expert in the New Mexico government is leaving next month.

New Mexico State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross will leave the Department of Health on July 10, acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase told reporters during a news conference last week.

“She’s going to spend the summer with her family,” Scrase said. “We’re just so privileged to have her here and sad to see her go.”

Scrase said Ross is an incredible leader and a “great thought partner” to him.

“There’s probably nothing I think about the pandemic that hasn’t been informed by my discussions with her,” Scrase said of Ross.

He said they are supported by the state epidemiology team who have worked “many, many, many weekends here since the beginning of the pandemic.” He said New Mexico has been a national leader among state governments’ pandemic responses and credited that to Ross’ work managing large amounts of data and sharing it with the CDC.

DOH spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter said the department is advertising for Ross’ replacement.

The state epidemiologist’s job involves overseeing the Epidemiology and Response Division at DOH, using health data to support public health policy, and advising the health secretary and senior leadership on epidemiology, evaluation, scientific evidence and health policy, according to the advertisement for the position.

“Leadership will designate an acting person when she leaves,” McGinnis Porter said.

The announcement that Ross is leaving DOH comes when New Mexico is reporting a seven-day rolling average of 929 new cases per day.

But the true count is much higher, somewhere between 2,787 and 9,290 cases per day, according to DOH estimates. Scrase said he thinks reported cases should be multiplied by between three and 10 times to get the true count, in part because testing is mostly being done at home, and only a fraction of those tests that come up positive are actually reported to the state.

By the beginning of July, an average of nearly five people in New Mexico are projected to die from COVID each day, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington.

The center’s model predicts that the average daily death rate throughout July would be reduced by about half — if 80% of New Mexico residents were to always wear masks in public.

Consistent mask wearing in New Mexico as of Thursday was only 22%, and is projected to decrease to 10% by mid-July, according to the center.

The Washington Post reported in May that the U.S. overall could see 100 million coronavirus infections and a potentially significant wave of deaths this fall and winter.

Arizona fires sweep land rich with ancient sites, artifacts - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

As Jason Nez scans rugged mountains, high desert and cliffsides for signs of ancient tools and dwellings unique to the U.S. Southwest, he keeps in mind that they're part of a bigger picture.

And, fire is not new to them.

"They have been burned many, many times, and that's healthy," said Nez, a Navajo archaeologist and firefighter. "A lot of our cultural resources we see as living, and living things are resilient."

As a pair of wildfires skirt this mountainous northern Arizona city, the flames are crossing land dense with reminders of human existence through centuries — multilevel stone homes, rock carvings and pieces of clay and ceramic pots that have been well-preserved in the arid climate since long before fire suppression became a tactic.

Today, firefighting crews increasingly are working to avoid or minimize damage from bulldozers and other modern-day tools on archaeological sites and artifacts, and protect those on public display to ensure history isn't lost on future generations.

"Some of those arrowheads, some of those pottery sherds (broken ceramics) you see out there have that power to change the way we look at how humans were here," Nez said.

The crews' efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife and habitat, air quality and archaeology. In Arizona, a handful of archaeologists have walked miles in recent months locating evidence of meaningful past human activity in and around scorched areas and mapping it for protection.

Just last week, a crew spotted a more than 1,000-year-old semi-buried dwelling known as a pit house.

"We know this area is really important to tribes, and it's ancestral land for them," said U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and tribal relations specialist Jeanne Stevens. "When we do more survey work, it helps add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what's on the landscape."

It's not just the scattered ruins that need protecting.

The nearby Wupatki National Monument — a center of trade for Indigenous communities around the 1100s — was evacuated because of wildfire twice this year. Exhibits there hold priceless objects, including 800-year-old corn, beans and squash, along with intact stone Clovis points used for hunting that date back some 13,000 years.

Before the first wildfire hit in April, forcing the evacuation of the monument and hundreds of homes outside Flagstaff, there was no set plan on how quickly to get the artifacts out because wildfire wasn't seen as an imminent threat to Wupatki.

"Now with climate change, conditions have become different, hence a new plan," monument curator Gwenn Gallenstein said.

Gallenstein assembled nested boxes with cavities for larger items and foam pouches for arrowheads and other smaller artifacts. She had photographs for each item so whoever was tasked with the packaging would know exactly where to put them, she said.

Gallenstein created a training plan on how to pack up ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, textiles woven from cotton grown in the area and other things before another large wildfire broke out June 12 and the monument was closed again. No one expected to put the plan into action so soon.

The fires have so far avoided the facility. Several boxes of items that trace back to what archaeologists say are distinct Indigenous cultures were taken to the Museum of Northern Arizona for safekeeping.

Some Hopi clans consider those who lived at Wupatki their ancestors. Navajo families later settled the area but slowly left, either voluntarily or under pressure by the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private use of the land once it became a monument in 1924.

The monument has some 2,600 archaeological sites across 54 square miles, representing a convergence of cultures on the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. The region includes the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Hopi mesas, volcanic cinder fields, the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the U.S. and the San Francisco Peaks — a mountain sacred to 13 Native American tribes.

"That gives you an idea of the density of the cultural history here, and that continues outside the national monument boundaries into the national forest," said Lauren Carter, the monument's lead interpretive ranger.

The Coconino National Forest on the southern edge of the plateau has surveyed just 20% of its 2,900 square miles and logged 11,000 archaeological sites, Stevens said. Forest restoration work that includes mechanical thinning and prescribed burns has given archaeologists an opportunity to map sites and log items. More discoveries are expected because of the current wildfires, especially in the more remote areas, Stevens said.

The arid climate has helped preserve many of the artifacts and sites. But it's also the type of environment that is prone to wildfires, particularly with a mix of fierce winds and heat that were all too common in the U.S. West this spring as megadroughts linked to climate change baked the region.

Stevens recalled working on a wildfire in 2006 in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and a prison crew coming across a great kiva — a circular stone structure built into the earth and used for ceremonies. "That was something that was really notable," she said. "Where we've been having fires lately, we do have a lot of survey and a lot of knowledge, but we're always ready for that new discovery."

Nez, too, has made rare finds, including two Clovis points and village sites on a mountainside that he wasn't expecting to see.

"There's going to be pottery sherds, there's going to be projectile points," he tells firefighting crews and managers. "In Native cultures, those things are out there, and we respect them by leaving them alone."