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New Mexico wildfire sparks backlash against controlled burns. That's bad for the West

A satellite image shows a natural color view of active fire lines from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 11.
A satellite image shows a natural color view of active fire lines from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 11.

Northern New Mexico's still raging wildfire—now the largest in that state's modern history—did not start out as entirely wild.

The wind-fueled blazepartly began as an intentional or prescribed U.S. Forest Service burn near picturesque Hermits Peak outside of Las Vegas, N.M. Such fires are set to thin forests of built-up fuel, restore forest health and prevent much bigger fires.

On April 6, a Santa Fe National Forest burn crew lit what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn in the area. By late afternoon the fire had jumped its burn area, pushed by what National Forest rangers called"unexpected erratic winds." It later merged with the nearby Calf Canyon fire, which the agency now says was started by a dormant burn pile from a previous prescribed burn, to become this historic blaze.

Forest ecologists and other experts now worry it may prompt a backlash against prescribed burns in New Mexico and across the West, throwing a monkey wrench into this vital forest management tool that experts say needs to be massively scaled-up to help reduce the number, size and intensity of catastrophic fires across the region.

Record-breaking wildfires in California and other states underscore the need to expand intentional burn programs

"There's already a tremendous amount of backlash," says James Biggs, who teaches wildfire ecology and fire behavior at New Mexico Highlands University whose campus in Las Vegas, N.M., is near the southern edge of the wildfire.

Biggs says ironically the scale and impact of this blaze underscores precisely why the Western U.S. needs to do more intentional burning after a century-plus policy of suppressing nearly every forest fire, which has resulted in the build up of dangerous and untenable amounts of fuel across forests.

"There are thousands of prescribed burns in the West every year, and they're done to improve these conditions in the forest in an attempt to reduce the threat of these large, catastrophic events," Biggs says.

The record-breaking wildfires in California and other states in recent years are also an argument for why land managers and state officials need to expand their intentional burn programs, not decrease them, he says. "And if we don't do this, then we're going to see this pattern [of catastrophic fire] repeat itself over and over."

The New Mexico blaze is deeply concerning, says Rebecca Miller, a scholar with the University of Southern California's The West on Fire Project. "Because we know that we need to be treating the massive amounts of vegetation that we've got across the Western United States, which is a direct result of historic wildfire suppression policies of the 20th century."

In California alone, nearly 20% of the state or more than 20 million acres of forest, Miller says, urgently need what's called "fuel treatments" meaning reduction of fuels through controlled fires, mechanical thinning or in some cases natural wildfires allowed to burn on remote lands away from communities.

The devastating impact of massive wildfires has worsened across the West, especially in California, amid record drought, human-caused climate change and these built-up fuels. Yet fear and apprehension around prescribed burning persists, including worries about liability, safety, cost and the impact of drifting smoke.

The origins of the Hermits Peak fire, experts say, risk unwinding even the modest gains by proponents of 'good fire' or intentional burns, both politically and in acres treated.

"The vast, vast, vast majority of prescribed burns are conducted safely, do not escape, and you'll never hear about them"

"When we see a prescribed burn, as in New Mexico, that escapes and becomes a massive wildfire that threatens communities, that prompts concerns about the safety of these prescribed burns of this very, very important tool," Miller at USC says adding, "the vast, vast, vast majority of prescribed burns are conducted safely, do not escape, and you'll never hear about them."

Hard data on just how often intentional fires escape their boundaries is hard to come by. But Miller says estimates from the early 2000s show that fewer than 1% of prescribed burns might escape to become a major wildfire. "So we're talking a really, really small percentage."

So far, the New Mexico fire has burned more than 300,000 acres, torched hundreds of structures and displaced thousands. The fire is just over 40% contained. The blaze is closing in on 500 square miles burned.

Nickie Johnny, a fire incident commander on the blaze, tells member station KUNM, it will continue to grow. "New Mexico hasn't seen a fire of this kind of size and this kind of fuel type. And this fire has the potential to grow twice, maybe three times its size," Johnny says.

Many residents want to know why the Forest Service went ahead with this intentional blaze despite forecasted high winds. The agency has not released its detailed "burn plan" and other documents, citing its own internal probe. There are reports that the agency team that ignited the burn had been warned beforehand of poor weather, including potential wind gusts up to 25 mph or more and very low humidity.

Steve Romero, the Forest Service ranger in charge of the area and crew that lit the prescribed fire, has apologized.

Residents are livid that the Forest Service went ahead with the intentional fire despite forecasted high winds

But that's done little to quell the deep anger and frustration. Many residents are livid. "Some one (sic) needs to lose their job and go to jail for criminal negligence," Brian Lee wrote on a local Albuquerque TV station post about the apology. "I have a crazy idea!" another viewer posted, "don't do [prescribed burns] during windy and severe dry time of year." Others posted: "fire the incompetent" and "this is pretty much par for the Forest Circus."

There have been scores of harsher comments across social media including a handful of thinly veiled threats of violence and retribution, most of which have since been taken down.

State officials have called for a full investigation. Some lawmakers have called the decision to light a controlled fire during the state's windy season highly irresponsible. "It makes zero sense to me, and this is also something we have to get to the bottom of," says New Mexico U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has generally supported beneficial burning as a forest management tool, called the decision to light the blaze "negligent" but an "earnest mistake." She also called for a temporary halt to all prescribed burns in the state. It's unclear how long that state ban will last.

"For me, it's negligent to consider a prescribed burn in a windy season, in a state that's under an extreme drought warning statewide," the governor said. "So I think that it is likely — likely – that Congress and most of our federal partners accept that there is significant federal liability."

The Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire has already burned more acres than burned in the entire year last year in New Mexico.
/ Eric Westervelt/NPR
Eric Westervelt/NPR
The Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire has already burned more acres than burned in the entire year last year in New Mexico.

Biggs, the forestry and fire behavior expert at New Mexico Highlands University, says he understands the angst and frustration. Many of his students and colleagues have had to evacuate or had property damaged.

"Either their homes have been lost or the families' homes have been lost. We've got faculty and staff that have lost homes and it becomes very chaotic and there's certainly periods of going through this shock," he says, "and so it's very difficult to cut through that."

But Biggs and others are calling for cooler heads to prevail.

"Let's wait for all the facts and the science" to come out in an investigation, he says. "The backlash that we're seeing in the media and by the politicians is right now a very emotional argument. The one thing that's for sure is these are not controlled laboratory experiments," he says. "And so sometimes these things, you know, are just unpredictable in terms of the weather patterns, and this weather at times was unprecedented."

These types of fires have got out of control before and have had a chilling effect on the practice

In the past, controlled blazes that got out of control have had a chilling effect, at least temporarily, on the practice.

In 2012 a prescribed fire in Jefferson County, Colorado reignited after officials thought it was out. It killed three people and burned more than 20 homes. After that, Colorado tightened the criteria and conditions required for intentional burns.

And in New Mexico a controlled burn by the National Park Service near Los Alamos in 2000 burned some 400 homes and structures and threatened the federal nuclear lab there. Congressional hearings and intense criticism followed. The U.S. Interior Secretary at the time called the planning for the blaze "seriously flawed."

Meantime, in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has come under criticism for an astonishing gap between rhetoric and reality on controlled burns. The Democrat has repeatedly promised to prioritize intentional fire and fuels reduction. But the state has failed to deliver on those pledges despite multiple years of deadly and destructive wildfires across the nation's most populous state.

In fact, an investigation by NPR's California Newsroom and Cap Radio found last year found that Newsom "overstated, by an astounding 690%, the number of acres treated with fuel breaks and prescribed burns in the very forestry projects he said needed to be prioritized to protect the state's most vulnerable communities. Newsom has claimed that 35 'priority projects' carried out as a result of his executive order resulted in fire prevention work on 90,000 acres. But the state's own data show the actual number is 11,399."

More recently, the state of California and federal land management agencies have pledged to treat by prescribed burns or other field options up to 400,000 acres a year and dramatically increase the use of beneficial fire. But many are skeptical the state will reach its goals. In 2020 the same agencies pledged to treat one million acres a year by 2025. "Unfortunately, we're still quite far from that goal," Rebecca Miller at USC notes.

The state's fire agency is currently well-behind its prescribed fire goals. In fiscal year 2021-22 Cal Fire did just 6,483 acres of controlled burns across the state, and 9,123 acres in other non-fire fuel reduction projects, according to Cal Fire spokesman Issac Sanchez. Data show thatCal Fire treated only about 64,000 acres in 2019 and only 32,000 acres in 2020.

Federal land agencies, too, have repeatedly failed to reach fuel-reduction goals in the state, posting figures that are far more aspirational than real.

Sanchez says Cal Fire fully expects the number of acres treated to rise in the months and years ahead. "It should be remembered that it takes time to hire and train the additional personnel required to carry out these projects," Sanchez told NPR.

"It's incredibly important to dramatically increase the pace and scale at which we're doing these fuel treatments if we hope to have any kind of handle on the wildfire seasons that repeatedly strike the Western United States," Miller says.

For Native American Tribes prescribed fire is one of the key parts of their forest management plan

While an escaped fire is clearly not good, says Darrell Clairmont the prescribed fire and fuels manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in Northwest Montana, "It also is something that is natural, and it's not a one hundred percent guarantee that you're going to be able to control this every single time," he says. "The predicted weather, you know, it's not always completely accurate, and that's generally the one that will get you."

The CSKT tribes do between 3,000 and 5,000 acres of controlled fires a year, he says. "For us, it's part of our culture." Indeed, Native American tribes have long used controlled burns to clear out fuel, regenerate forest growth and promote forest health. "Prescribed fire is one of the key parts of our forest management plan."

Clairmont says intentionally sparking fires to control forest fuel and health is a huge responsibility. He and other expert "burn bosses" have to follow detailed burn plans that examine weather and wind forecasts, fuel moisture levels in dead and live vegetation, and other safety factors.

"I don't know any burn bosses who takes it lightly," he says. "There have been far more successful prescribed burns this year that you're going to hear nothing about."

In more than 30 years of doing intentional burns Clairmont says he's had only two blazes go wrong, and then only briefly. In both cases, he says, winds ended up pushing the fire outside the set burn area. "Both burned, you know, an extra one hundred acres, so nothing major. But we have had them," he says. "The majority of burns had absolutely no problem."

In fact, Clairmont would like to treat far more acres with intentional fires than what the tribes are currently doing. "If I could get 10 or 12,000 acres a year, do I think that would still be enough? I'm not certain. But it would definitely be better than the three thousand that we average at the moment," he says. "We need to do more. And our partners [at the U.S. Forest Service] need to do more of this, too."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.