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A planned burn gone wrong sharpens a forestry dilemma

The Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire seen over Las Vegas
Alice Fordham
The Calf Canyon Hermits Peak fire seen over Las Vegas

Glorieta Adventure Camps, just outside Santa Fe, are usually full of kids biking in the mountains or swimming in the lake. But now, the scenic retreat is swarming with Red Cross volunteers, FEMA officials and hundreds of evacuees from the worst fire anyone here can remember.

“This is unimaginable,” says Raymond Sanchez, having lunch in the dining room with his wife. “It is beyond belief. It's something that I've never seen before. It's basically a monster.”

Sanchez is a teacher who reluctantly left his family home in Mora County about a 90-minute drive north after two blazes combined to become the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, which now covers more than 250,000 acres and continues to grow.

“Our home is directly in the path,” he says. “The wind is blowing it toward my house.”

Relentless winds have been pushing the fire through drought-stricken forests for weeks now. Sanchez's brother is among nearly 2,000 people trying to fight the fire. He told Sanchez about tunnels of fire, like nothing he's ever seen.

“Very terrifying,” says Sanchez. “It was being driven by the winds, like 60-mile-an-hour winds.”

Like many from the rural communities affected by the fire, Sanchez’s family faces losing a livelihood and generations of history as well as a home. They have had the family ranch in the area for about 200 years. Many more people in rural Mora county depend on the forests for employment in the logging industry, or in tourism.

And the high stakes make it all the more difficult for Sanchez and many others to understand that one of the fires now billowing up smoke visible for 100 miles was started deliberately, by the Forest Service.

“Our prescribed burn from last Wednesday was the cause of the Hermits Peak fire,” said Santa Fe National Forest Ranger Steven Romero at an online meeting on April 11. “With that said, we take full responsibility. And with a heavy heart, we're really sorry for what happened.”

Prescribed burns are supposed to be small, controlled fires that reduce the amount of flammable vegetation and prevent larger fires in the future.

Romero said the weather had forecast favorable conditions and then high winds had blown up unexpectedly, spreading the fire. But Sanchez, the evacuee, said high winds are very common in New Mexico in spring and he wouldn't have lit a fire in his own house then.

“We don't want embers coming out of our chimney and lighting our neighbor's house on fire,” he said.

Several other evacuees echoed his sentiments. Sophia Romero, who also evacuated Mora County with her younger children, said she was not totally against prescribed burns. She had been in the forest her whole life, she said, and recognized the need for them.

However, she said after a snowless winter in much of the area near the burn, and during the windy time of the year, she can’t see why this burn went ahead.

“They know New Mexico weather, especially northern New Mexico weather, we had a very dry winter,” she said. “We want to know why, like what made you decide that was okay?”

The Forest Service is conducting a review.

New Mexican officials have also criticized the decision to burn. Earlier this week Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a briefing, “it's negligent to consider a prescribed burn in a windy season in a state that's under an extreme drought warning statewide.” She has called for changes in federal rules around burns and for “reparation, restitution,” in the form of federal aid and investment.

Senator Martin Heinrich said to KUNM that prescribed burns have been used effectively in New Mexico for many years, and that they are being used even now to create buffer zones around the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.

However, Heinrich said, “it's clear that it only takes one mistake to destroy people's lives and destroy the trust that has been built up over decades.”

He went on, “I think we have to recognize that the weather has changed. And the decision-making matrix for when and how to burn has has to change with that.”

The memory of the huge Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos in 2000 could also haunt New Mexican attitudes to prescribed burns. The blaze, which torched 400 homes, began as a planned burn and was found to have been the fault of federal officials.

However, forest management experts, like University of New Mexico professor Matthew Hurteau, say it would be a mistake to ban prescribed burns entirely.

“I'm confident it's an essential tool,” he said, adding that since the beginning of the 1900s, forest management focused on fire suppression, which led to a buildup of flammable dead plant material.

“The idea is reintroducing a process in an ecologically appropriate manner to help restore the ecosystem and fire have serves a really important role in these forests,” he said.

Some forest managers and firefighters worry that the fear of public criticism will make managers reluctant to conduct prescribed burns. Speaking anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, one New Mexico firefighter said there are worries that the political fallout from the Hermits Peak fire could have a chilling effect on decision-making.

"I think it makes people leery," the firefighter said. "There's a feeling that you, as a burn boss, you're hanging it out there to try to protect your community and if something goes wrong the blame goes on you.

Hurteau also worries political and popular anger about this burn could make forest managers too afraid to try to restore healthy fires.

“If anytime that somebody makes a mistake or a prescribed fire gets away for any number of reasons, if we as society demand that heads roll for that,” he said, “we're going to select for fire managers that do not like fires and we're going to select for land management culture that avoids risk.”

In a changed climate, he said the window for burning safely is changing in ways that are not yet fully understood. But without planned burning, the risk to communities from tinderbox forests will only grow.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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