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Wind Works Against Hermits Peak Firefighting

Prescribed burn turned wildfire northwest of Las Vegas resists suppression due to high winds and rocky terrain

About 100 people have evacuated their homes ahead of a prescribed burn that blew out of control last week and has grown to nearly 1,300 acres northwest of Las Vegas.

US Forest Service officials said at a presentation Monday night they expect high spring winds to continue to make firefighting difficult. An incoming Pacific storm system will further increase the winds throughout the week, a meteorologist predicted during a livestreamed meeting Monday evening.

“We’ll do what we can in those situations with the winds that we had today and that are forecasted all week, that’s going to be a tough assignment for all the resources on the ground,” Shilow Norton, operations section chief for fire’s Type 2 incident management team said.

The Hermits Peak Fire kicked off on April 6 when unexpected winds during a prescribed burn in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District started multiple spot fires in the national forest.

Local forest officials set an intentional blaze in a section identified as the Las Dispensas treatment area, as a means to thin the area and protect the Gallinas Watershed, which serves as a water source for the City of Las Vegas.

The fire, roughly 12 miles from the Las Vegas city limits, had burned 1,280 acres as of Monday evening. During a community meeting, incident managers said the fire was about 10% contained with 244 personnel assigned to the job.

Steve Romero, Forest Service district ranger of the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District, started the community meeting by addressing the questions on the minds of many residents, “We take full responsibility with a heavy heart and we are very sorry for what happened.”

Viewers used a comments section to express frustration over the decision to start the prescribed burn. “Who in their right mind would authorize a control burn in windy conditions!” commented Tony Valdez. Officials evaded the question during the Q&A portion of the community meeting.

Romero said the forecast on the day of the prescribed burn appeared favorable, “but as it often happens...changes can occur unexpectedly.”

Monday afternoon the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office issued a mandatory evacuation order for Pendaries Village, San Ignacio, Las Tusas and Las Dispensas following “major movements in the fire.”

The Southwest Area Type 2 Incident Management Team 4 assumed control of the firefighting efforts early Monday. The management team has been called in for previous fires, including the 2020 Medio Fire, and crews are working on a full suppression strategy to contain the five-day-old fire.

High winds and dry conditions throughout the day maintained challenging conditions as firefighters worked to suppress the flames on Monday. Strong winds on Tuesday are projected to continue throughout the week in the area, with dry conditions exacerbating the unfavorable weather.

“When we get those types of winds we can’t fly, we can’t get people up in the air to look and see exactly what’s going on. We don’t have any options for aircraft as far as helicopters or bucket drops or slurry, so it does really limit our ability,” Norton, said in a Monday morning briefing.

An evacuation shelter has been established at Old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas to host up to 150 people. Local law enforcement officials estimated 100 people have already been evacuated.

The terrain surrounding the fire, rocky and steep, has posed challenges as well for the firefighters working in the area. Crews have focused efforts on preventing the fire from moving to the southwest where the blaze could impact private land and structures.

As of Monday evening no structures have been lost, Norton said, though he predicted there was a strong potential for growth given the weather conditions.

Forest Service officials have postponed a prescribed burn planned in Santa Fe next week. “Earlier, fire managers had identified a window starting April 18 to implement the prescribed burn to reduce fuel loading and protect the watershed that provides approximately 40% of the water for Santa Fe residents,” reads an announcement from the agency. The SFNF is focused on suppressing the Hermit Peak Fire on the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District. With the neighboring fire activity and the diminishing window for spring prescribed burns, fire managers will determine a later date for the broadcast burn in the Santa Fe Watershed.”

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