Opinion: A Dormant Prescribed Burn Caused the Calf Canyon Fire

Daniella Cressman

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Many families and communities have lost their homes due to the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Now, news has broken that it was the result of a dormant prescribed burn, left unattended.

The Calf Canyon Fire, like its companion, the Hermits Peak Fire, started because of a U.S. Forest Service burn, the agency disclosed Friday. The blended fires have become the biggest in New Mexico history at more than 312,000 acres, and word Friday that the Calf Canyon Fire also was the product of a prescribed burn provoked disappointment and outrage from residents within the fire zone and state politicians. —Rick Ruggles

Needless to say, politicians and residents alike are outraged: they feel as though this was a negligent act that resulted in unnecessary damage to the precious New Mexico lands and threatened—if not destroyed—their way of life, and they are not mistaken.

The damage is horrendous, and hearing that all of this could have been avoided with a bit more caution from the U.S. Forest Service is infuriating.

Limbs and trees intentionally piled up and burned in January in an effort to remove debris and fuel from the forest appeared to have gone out, the Forest Service said in a statement but reignited into the Calf Canyon Fire in April....The Forest Service said the “sleeper fire” remained dormant through three winter snows. But on April 9, a smoke report came in from the area of the “pile burn” in January. Though crews responded at that time, the fire resumed 10 days later and breached containment lines, the Forest Service said. Strong winds on April 22 drove the Calf Canyon Fire into the Hermits Peak Fire, which itself had been caused by a Forest Service prescribed burn that blew out of control. —Rick Ruggles

The general consensus is this: There should have been dedicated crews to keep their eyes on prescribed burns; they should not have waited until the damage had already been to fight these fires that have destroyed many peoples' homes and, in many cases, taken a toll on their livelihoods.

There is deep disappointment among many.

That being said, the U.S. Forest Service has at least taken responsibility for their actions, and it has acknowledged that there are more serious accommodations to be made considering the changing conditions of the state.

They are up against a lot, although that does not make their actions excusable.

“Our commitment is to manage the public lands entrusted to us by improving the forest’s resilience to the many stressors they are facing, including larger, hotter wildfires, historic levels of drought, rising temperatures, and insects and disease" —Debbie Cress

Not only has this fire been detrimental to the rural communities of New Mexico that were already struggling financially, but it's also been quite expensive for the state as a whole.

“[The fire] has burned more than 312,000 acres and fire suppression costs to date exceed $132 million. The U.S. Forest Service will now pay for 100 percent of those costs, which increase by around $5 million every day.” —Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham

The fragility of New Mexico—and the planet at large for that matter—is arguably more severe due to climate change, which means that firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service will likely have to practice greater caution and perhaps even make adjustments due to the harsh conditions.

“[The Wildfire]'s an unfortunate circumstance...We have to remember, the climate is changing, and that’s changing the rules...He said the same crews that spend nine months fighting fires then must oversee the prescribed burns. He recommended having “prescribed burn fire crews” that have those duties as their main responsibility. —Matt Hurteau (University of New Mexico Forest & Fire Ecologist)

The guy is not wrong: this would honestly be a great idea, and it would likely protect our communities in the future. It's just unfortunate that so many people had to suffer due to a poor decision that the U.S. Forest Service made.

Fury has swept across the state as a result of this incident, and politicians have had enough.

“The destruction these two fires caused is immeasurable and will be felt for generations." —Leger Fernandez
“This is unacceptable...and the federal government must take responsibility for its role in creating this disaster and do everything in its power to help New Mexicans recover and rebuild.” U.S. Senator Ben Ray Lujan, D-NM

The fire had slowed, but, unfortunately, some residents were evacuated yesterday (May 27, 2022) due to a "reburn."

"With weather becoming unfriendlier, officials said the fire’s containment is now at 48 percent over about 634 miles. But crews saw a “reburn” of untouched timber Friday adjacent to a subdivision near Calf Canyon where the fire had been contained. Residents were evacuated..." —Rick Ruggles

Meanwhile, multiple wildfires are ravaging many other areas of the state.

"The Cerro Pelado Fire east of Jemez Springs is about 92 percent contained and has burned 45,605 acres. But the Black Fire, 30 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences, remains potent and has scorched about 191,500 acres. It was listed at 13 percent containment. The Bear Trap Fire, 22 miles southwest of Magdalena, has burned about 38,100 acres and is 41 percent contained." —Rick Ruggles

No one can change the past and correct mistakes that have already been made, but I hope that the U.S. Forest Service learns from this and can move forward in a way that protects our communities at large.

I am grateful for the firefighters who have partially contained this enormous blaze, but I wish that more precautions had been taken before so much damage was done.

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Canadian-American author writing about local politics, personal finance, & dining in Albuquerque.

Albuquerque, NM
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