Forest Service discovers New Mexico wildfire caused by controlled burns

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On Friday, Forest Service investigators blamed the Calf Canyon Fire — one of two wildfires that have combined to become New Mexico’s largest blaze — on a planned blaze that started unrolled over the winter and continued to smolder for months.

In a statement, the Forest Service said what began as a controlled burn in the Santa Fe National Forest in January, intended to clear vegetation and prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future, has morphed into into a “sleeping fire”. It overwintered underground, continuing to burn slowly until it reappeared in early April.

Fueled by strong, gusty winds, the Calf Canyon blaze escaped attempts by firefighters to contain it. On April 22, it merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which also started as a prescribed burn set up by the Forest Service that got out of control. Over the next month, the combined fires destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of people. As of Friday morning, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire had burned more than 312,000 acres and was 47% contained.

“Santa Fe National Forest is 100% focused on suppressing these fires with the support of Type 1 Incident Management teams who are fully prepared to handle complex situations at all hazards,” said Debbie Cress, fire supervisor. of the SFNF, in a press release.

A month later, New Mexico’s biggest fire fuels anger and despair

After decades of adopting a policy of extinguishing fires as quickly as possible, federal and some state officials have come up with the idea of ​​prescribed burns in recent years. The basic concept, backed by science and Indigenous groups’ long history of intentional fire use, is that small, controlled burns can remove flammable vegetation and prevent the kind of destructive megafires that have devastated the West. Experts have called for more land fires and the Biden administration has announced plans to use intentional burning and brush thinning to reduce fire risk on 50 million acres that border vulnerable communities. .

But extreme drought and record heat, compounded by climate change, have made it more difficult to resort to intentional burning as a preventative measure. Longer wildfire seasons have reduced the window of time in which firefighters can safely conduct controlled burns. Bureaucratic hurdles, combined with public fear that an intentionally started fire might escape, have also prevented some forest managers from using prescribed burns.

In New Mexico, that fear has come true this year. After the Hermits Peak Fire escaped its containment lines, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced the suspension of all planned fires on National Forest Lands while the agency reviews its practices. .

The review “will commission representatives from across the wildfire and research community to conduct the national review and assess the prescribed fire program from the best available science to implementation on the ground,” Moore said in a statement.

Moore said that in 99.84% of cases, prescribed fires go as planned and are “essential tools” to protect communities. But he admitted that in rare circumstances they can and have spiraled out of control and have become wildfires.

Fires such as the Calf Canyon Fire that overwinter, continuing to smolder through recurring snowfalls and cold weather, are even more unusual. Most people think of fires as burning trees or brush. But it’s possible the fires will burn deep into the ground and linger, presenting land managers and firefighters with a complex challenge when those fires break out the following spring.

This year, weather and climate conditions have prepared New Mexico for a devastating fire season that started weeks earlier than normal.

The winter snowpack where the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires started was significantly lower than normal as extreme drought gripped the area through the winter and into the spring. Beginning in April, high winds combined with powder keg conditions to fan unusually early fires. The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for dangerous fire conditions almost daily due to the volatile mix of windy, dry and hot weather.

The state observed its second driest April and the 11th hottest April on record. The conditions seen this year are part of a long-term trend towards warmer and drier conditions in the region that scientists have linked to human-caused climate change. Rising temperatures increase the risk of forest fires by intensifying drought and therefore drying out vegetation more quickly and making it more flammable.

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A recent study has shown that the “mega-drought” in the southwest is the most extreme in 1,200 years.

Climate Central, a nonprofit science communication organization, analyzed the change in the number of “fire weather” days in the West between 1973 and 2020. It found a general increase, with New Mexico experiencing some of the biggest increases.

New Mexico will likely be at increased risk of fire spread until the monsoon rains begin in late June or July. The forecast for the next few days is grim, with the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center declaring a “critical” fire danger. A red flag warning is in effect Saturday for much of New Mexico, which may well extend through the holiday weekend.

“A significant pattern of fire growth will continue Sunday and Memorial Day as winds strengthen further with extreme dryness, well above normal temperatures and low overnight moisture recoveries,” the weather service wrote. from Albuquerque.

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