The Calf Canyon Fire has charred over 312,000 acres in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest since April. Photo courtesy of the New Mexico National Guard
The recently ranked largest fire in New Mexico history was found Friday to have been caused by a prescribed burn that had concluded in January before reigniting in April following at least three winter weather events.
Forest Service investigators determined that the Calf Canyon Fire, which has charred over 312,000 acres in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest since April, was caused by a prescribed burn, or a pile burn, from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reigniting months later.
Fires like these, which are extinguished on the surface but continue to burn underground, are known as holdover fires, also known by the nickname "zombie fires." In places like Canada and Russia, where zombie fires are often seen, peat in the soil fuels them.
Smoke was first reported on April 9 from the vicinity of the Gallinas Canyon Wildland Urban Interface pile burn, which had concluded on Jan. 29, according to the New Mexico Fire Information, an interagency effort by federal and state agencies in New Mexico to communicate fire information.
While crews monitored the 1.5 acre smoke over the following days, the fire reignited on April 19, jumping the containment lines. A significant wind event on April 22 then caused significant fire spread, spurring the flames on until it merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which itself was an escaped prescribed burn.
High winds were reported kicking up dust and reducing visibility on the roadways across parts of the state that day, and a photo from the New Mexico State Police posted over Twitter showed just how low visibility had become on I-25 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe as dust filled the sky.
"When it comes to wind and fire weather, there are bad days, really bad days, and really, really bad days. Friday is going to be a really, really bad day. 60-70 mph wind gusts will be common. Plus it continues to be dry and warm. No sparks tomorrow, please!" the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque tweeted on April 21, referring to the predicted wind event for the following day.
From the day of its reignition to May 27, the fire has exploded to 312,230 acres and is only 47 contained, according to InciWeb. The fire surpassed the Whitewater-Baldy Fire of 2012, which had burned more than 297,845 acres, as the largest fire in state history on May 16.