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KUNM News Update

WED: Massive New Mexico blaze blamed on miscalculations & errors, Councillor withdraws support for safe outdoor spaces, + More

Biden
Evan Vucci/AP
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AP
President Joe Biden speaks during a briefing on the New Mexico wildfires at the New Mexico State Emergency Operations Center, Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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

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.

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

Bassan pulls back support for safe outdoor spaces — KUNM News, Jessica Dyer, Albuquerque Journal

An Albuquerque city councilor is apologizing to her constituents, and rolling back her support for safe outdoor spaces, saying she is now working to fix her mistake.

The project sought to designate certain outdoor areas for unhoused people to set up tents and vehicles legally, and offer basic services like showers and toilets, according to a report from the Albuquerque Journal.

Councilor Brook Bassan initially supported the program when the city council met to update the zoning code, going as far as writing an op-ed in favor of the plan.

After meeting with residents near North Domingo Baca Park, she announced yesterday she plans to introduce legislation to repeal the program, which passed by a narrow 5-4 vote, according to the journal.

Bassan said she has growing worries over the plan’s implementation, and after hearing an outcry of concern from her constituents, she felt she needed to reverse her decision.

Brad Day, a local businessman, and outspoken supporter of and champion for the program, says residents concerns are unwarranted, that safe outdoor spaces would have rules, security programs, occupancy limits, storage spaces and standards for who can live there.

Officials announce new plan to address Downtown crime — KUNM News, Elise Kaplan, Albuquerque Journal

The city of Albuquerque is asking downtown businesses to contribute to a fund to help provide more and better law enforcement for the area.

Mayor Tim Keller announced the program at a news conference dowton yesterday afternoon, according to a report from the Albuquerque Journal.

As per the newspaper, the plan would have local businesses contribute to a fund that will finance things like more streetlights and more officers, that will focus on DWIs, illegal firearms, and monitoring parking lots and other areas where after parties, and violence occur when the bars let out.

Keller also said Albuquerque Police will be opening a new substation on central between 3rd and 4th by the end of the summer.

Albuquerque woman gets long prison term for fatal DWI crash — Associated Press

An Albuquerque woman has been sentenced to 12 years in prison in connection with a fatal car crash in June 2020.

A New Mexico district judge on Tuesday sentenced 42-year-old Bernadette Etsitty, who pleaded guilty in April on a charge of vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol.

Prosecutors said Etsitty had consumed a 12-pack of beer and was driving 66 mph in a 40 mph zone at the time of the head-on crash that killed 18-year-old Roxana Saenz.

According to the Albuquerque Journal, court records show Etsitty has been charged three times for driving while intoxicated including two offenses in 2006.

The newspaper also reported that a third-offense DWI in 2018 for Etsitty was dismissed by a McKinley County magistrate judge in 2019.

Los Alamos County again named Healthiest Community in U.S.— KUNM news and Albuquerque Journal

Los Alamos county has been named the healthiest community in the United States for the third year running.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the northern New Mexico County beat out about 3,000 other communities, which were evaluated based on 89 different health related metrics across 10 categories—including things like overall population health, public safety, mental health, life expectancy, infrastructure and more.

According to the Journal, CVS and U.S. News and World report collaborated on the study, which serves as a tool for elected officials, community members, and health leaders to examine and assess best practices and policies in order to offer their citizens the chance to live long, happy lives.

Newly launched website aims to help parents find baby formula KUNM News, Albuquerque Journal

The state of New Mexico has now launched a comprehensive website to help parents find baby formula across the state amid COVID-19 supply chain disruptions and consumer hoarding.

NMformula.org is a place where parents and caregivers alike can find baby formula and tips for resources like pediatricians and food pantries. There’s also information on how to properly use formulas, among other things.

As the Albuquerque Journal reports, the shortage in baby formula began with the start of the pandemic, though these shortages were recently made worse when a type of bacteria was discovered ast one of the four major U.S. companies that produce 90% of the country’s supply.

A statement from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham urged families to “enroll in the New Mexico Women Infant and Children or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help during this shortage.”

Some tips from the website suggest parents call their pediatrician’s office to see if they have samples of baby formula, check smaller drug stores, and to not dilute formula to ration it.

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

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 3 out of every 4 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

The 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: "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.

Labor shortage compounds federal firefighters' staffing woes - By Sam Metz Associated Press

Firefighter groups are applauding the Biden administration's steps to raise pay but warn that the temporary wage hikes won't be enough to combat staffing problems, as federal agencies compete with local fire departments and big box stores in a tight labor market.

"It's an effort and an attempt to try to keep people at their jobs," Jonathon Golden, a former federal firefighter from Park City, Utah, said of the move to raise federal firefighter pay. "But it still falls woefully short of the pay in municipal departments and other state agencies."

Wildfire season is raging throughout the western U.S. and fierce competition for workers is exacerbating challenges facing the land management agencies that employ firefighters. For years, firefighters and their advocates have decried stagnant pay and increased costs of living, arguing both are making recruitment difficult and attrition inevitable.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that infrastructure bill funds would go to backpay and giving all federal firefighters a raise for two years — either a 50% bump from their base salary or $20,000, whichever is less.

The move follows an executive order President Joe Biden signed last year to raise federal firefighter minimum wage to $15 an hour. And it implements provisions of last year's infrastructure bill designed to help recruit and retain firefighters, including $600 million in one-time funding to raise pay.

Biden said funding for long-term pay raises remained a priority as climate change makes the U.S. West hotter, drier and more prone to wildfires.

"I will do everything in my power, including working with Congress to secure long-term funding, to make sure these heroes keep earning the paychecks — and dignity — they deserve," he said in a statement.

Though officials say it's an imperfect metric, the number of unfilled staffing requests on large wildfires — or "unable to fill orders," indicates growing problems: In 2019, there were 92 times where the National Interagency Fire Center couldn't mobilize crews to wildfires upon request. In 2020, there were 339 crew mobilization orders that couldn't be filled. And last year, 1,858 crew mobilization orders couldn't be filled.

Ken Schmid, operations specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center, said "unable to fill" orders reflect staffing needs but also may depend on geography or time of year, particularly in months when agencies dedicate staff to training or other high priority work.

"What it comes down to is we've got more big fires out there and incident management teams with needs to try and corral them than we have folks available," said Grant Beebe, a former smokejumper and the Bureau of Land Management's assistant director for fire and aviation.

Members of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters believe raises were long overdue. However, they warn that without permanent increases, some of the nation's most skilled firefighters — including hotshots, smokejumpers and helitack crews — may go work elsewhere.

"You can go to a Whole Foods and start off at $16 an hour with $1,000 signing bonus. It's just a tight labor market now," Golden, the former firefighter, said.

In addition to facing competition from retail employers, federal agencies also compete with state and local departments that can pay more, offer more full-time positions and better benefits.

Mid-career federal firefighters currently earn roughly half the pay of third-year firefighters employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to analysis from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. Incident commanders working for federal agencies can make as little as one-quarter of the pay of entry-level municipal firefighters working the same fire.

Pay bumps and the creation of a new job classification that will allow more firefighters to be hired for year-round positions will narrow the gap between federal firefighters' pay and benefits and their state and local counterparts, federal officials say.

In a fact-sheet released this week, they say they expect the changes announced Tuesday to help firefighting agencies recruit more workers and create career advancement opportunities for those already employed. Both, officials say, should lower attrition rates for skilled firefighters who have left for other departments or industries.

Land management agencies, mainly the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, hope to employ more than 30,000 firefighters during peak season this summer and have worked to recruit new employees throughout the spring.

But the Forest Service said last month that staffing levels were 90% overall, but as low as 50% in some fire-prone regions, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Randy Erwin, president of the union representing a majority of federal wildland firefighters, said recruitment and retention had been particularly difficult this year, amid a worse-than-normal fire season. He expects the pay bump to help agencies fill their firefighting ranks.

"Firefighters simply could not make ends meet on the hopelessly low salaries offered at federal agencies, so jobs were becoming very difficult to fill," he said in a statement.

Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said there were few signs of competition for workers decreasing or hiring slowing down. Though the labor market remains tight, he said private sector employers have recovered to pre-pandemic levels more than public sector employers such as the federal agencies who employ firefighters.

Firefighting may be an attractive profession for young people craving adventure and a sense of purpose, but Hershbein said the allure would likely not insulate federal agencies from broader trends in the labor market and the many factors that prospective employees weigh when considering jobs.

"Based on my read of everything going on in the labor market, unless they are going to be doing other things to attract people — like bonuses and other incentives — it's going to be really hard," he said.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who last month in a letter called looming staffing shortages an "urgent threat to natural resources, public safety, and taxpayer dollars," applauded Biden's announcement. But he said more needed to be done for firefighters, particularly as blazes grow more severe.

"They deserve the basic decency of good pay and good benefits that fully recognize their sacrifice and essential work, and allows them to support their families," he said.

"Summer is here, there are firefighter shortages in Oregon and across the West, and there is no time to waste in getting these changes implemented on the ground."