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Officials call for change as USFS admits a third 2022 wildfire began as a prescribed burn

The Cerro Pelado Fire burns in the Jemez Mountains on Friday, April 29, 2022 in Cochiti, N.M..
Robert Browman
The Cerro Pelado Fire burns in the Jemez Mountains on Friday, April 29, 2022 in Cochiti, N.M..

On Monday the Forest Service released a report acknowledging last year's Cerro Pelado fire began after planned pile burns got out of control. That fire burned about 45,000 acres.

Two other Forest Service prescribed burns last summer also combined to become the state's largest ever wildfire, the Calf Canyon/Hermit's Peak fire. Officials are calling for further change in the way prescribed burns are conducted.

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez says the news about how the Cerro Pelado fire began was not unexpected.

"It's been outrage, but not surprise," she told KUNM.

She said prescribed burns last year did not use all available technology to ensure that fires were out.

After a nationwide pause in prescribed burning last year and an agency review, she said Forest Service officials told her that in the pile burns that they have done since then, they have used handheld infrared technology to determine if there was any residual heat, and that they have also used drones.

Forest Service officials in New Mexico say they have worked harder to communicate with local communities about plans and about the benefits of prescribed fire to clear out flammable vegetation in forests.

Leger Fernandez agrees there has been an improvement but added: "It needs to be a communication that exchanges information in both directions and I don't think we're seeing enough of that."

Plus, she said the Government Accountability Office is producing a report into the practice of prescribed burning and she would have liked a pause on all prescribed burns until its release.

There is no release date for that report but she expects it by early next year.

Senator Ben Ray Luján also said in a statement that the Forest Service must do better and that technology could help. And Senator Martin Heinrich said in a statement: "It is frustrating and deeply concerning to learn now that the Cerro Pelado Fire was also caused by an escaped prescribed fire."

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.