Forest Service Says It Didn’t Consider Climate Change When It Accidentally Caused Historic Fire In New Mexico

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Fire chief Ralph Lucas points to a burned forest by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon near Holman, New Mexico, U.S., May 24, 2022. Picture taken May 24, 2022.

Andrew Hay | Reuters

The U.S. Forest Service ignored the effects of climate change when it conducted a controlled burn in April that sparked the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the agency said in a report released Tuesday.

The agency relied on multiple miscalculations, poor weather data and underestimated drought conditions in the southwest when crews ignited a prescribed burn that led to the ongoing blaze. Calf Canyon/Hermits Creek, according to the agency’s 80-page review.

The blaze, which has scorched more than 341,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in New Mexico, comes amid a prolonged drought and extreme temperatures in the West.

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“The devastating impact of this fire on the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico has demanded this level of scrutiny to ensure that we understand how this tragic event unfolded,” said the Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in a statement. “I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are for communities and individuals.”

Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions, and unpredictable climate change have become significant challenges for the Forest Service, which uses prescribed burns as a way to reduce the risk of destructive fires. Controlled burns have always helped manage vegetation, minimize hazardous fuels and recycle nutrients back into the soil.

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The report found that although the Forest Service followed its approved prescribed fire plan, the fire was started in much drier conditions than recognized. Persistent drought, limited winter rainfall, below-average snowpack, and fuel build-up all contributed to increased fire evacuation risk, according to the report.

The review also found that “many details regarding weather situational awareness in the fire environment were overlooked or distorted”, and that some nearby automated weather stations were unavailable.

“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground that we have never encountered. We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires,” Moore said. “The fires are beyond our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how the mega-drought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.”

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On May 20, Moore announced a 90-day pause in prescribed fire operations on national forest lands, giving the agency time to assess the prescribed fire program. The Forest Service said it conducts about 4,500 prescribed fires each year and 99.84 percent of projects go as planned.

“Directed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are reducing the windows where this tool can be used safely.”

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