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Forest Service says errors in controlled burn sparked New Mexico's largest fire

Forest Service says errors in controlled burn sparked New Mexico's largest fire
The U.S. Forest Service admits it made mistakes in the controlled burn that sparked the massive Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, according to a report released Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group

June 21 (UPI) -- The U.S. Forest Service said it made mistakes during a prescribed burn that led to the largest fire in New Mexico history, according to a report released Tuesday.

The Forest Service's 80-page report blamed inaccurate models and miscalculations in April's Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire that burned more than 340,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes. The fire complex, which started as two separate fires, is still burning and is currently 71% contained.

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The report blamed a backlog of projects due to the 2018-19 government shutdown and the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented the Forest Service from thinning trees and conducting controlled burns to reduce the risk of more serious fires.

The backlog "built a sense of urgency to accomplish projects to 'catch up,'" the report said. "These expectations, coupled with the opportunity to implement during a narrow window when the crew was available, smoke dispersion was good and the prescribed fire area was forecasted to be in prescription, led to acceptance of unforeseen risk."

RELATED Calf Canyon Fire ignited from 'zombie fire'

The fire in April started from the Forest Service's prescribed burn from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reigniting months later. The report said ongoing drought, dry trees and heavy winds helped to spread the flames.

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The report found the Forest Service skipped on-the-ground wind observations and relied instead on predicted wind forecasts from the National Weather Service. Winds eventually gusted up to 75 mph as the fire grew out of control.

"The combination of changes in fuel conditions, underestimated potential fire behavior outside the burn unit, and conducting the prescribed fire on the warmer and drier end of the prescription, led to an increased probability of an escaped prescribed fire, if the burn spread beyond the unit boundary," the report said.

RELATED U.S. Forest Service pauses prescribed fire operations for 90-day review

In the wake of the destructive New Mexico wildfire, the U.S. Forest Service has suspended planned burns.

But New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed frustration that no one involved in the burn will be held accountable for their "significant mistakes."

"It is very difficult to understand how a plan crafted several years ago could be repeatedly re-approved without adjustments or considerations for updated drought conditions," Grisham said Tuesday. "As well as how that plan could be put into place without any immediate data for weather conditions during what New Mexicans know to be a particularly windy time of the year."

RELATED New Mexico wildfires close down three national forests

Despite the temporary ban, the U.S. Forest Service said controlled burns are still needed to keep communities safe.

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"Wildfires are threatening more communities than they ever have. Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them," the report said. "Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely."

RELATED Worsening drought fuels 'catastrophic' wildfires in New Mexico

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