US Forest Service Pauses Prescribed Burns, Announces 90-Day Review

Santa Fe County closes trails

USFS May 17, 2022 The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire began April 5, 2022 as a US Forest Service prescribed burn, then was declared a wildfire the next day. It's pictured here on May 17, 2022.

Citing current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field, US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced today a 90-day pause on prescribed burns on National Forest Service lands.

The review, Moore said in a news release “will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”

Prescribed burns, he noted, take place “to ensure the safety of the communities involved,” and require extensive planning: “Landscapes are analyzed for prescribed fire treatments and the effects on community well-being, vegetation, hydrology, threatened and endangered species and other values. Extensive standard operating procedures to authorize prescribed fires include developing and coordinating a burn plan, site preparation, public notifications, weather and forecast monitoring and validation before a decision is made to go ahead.”

The Forest Service, he says, conducts an average of 4,500 prescribed fire projects annually, treating more than 1.4 million acres of National Forest System lands and in “99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned. In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires.”

Rare or not, the Hermits Peak Fire began April 5 as the Las Dispensas prescribed burn on the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District. It was declared a wildfire on April 6. By April 22, Hermits Peak was deemed more than 90% contained. Meanwhile the Calf Canyon Fire had ignited nearby on April 19. Extreme winds on April 22 sparked 20 fires across the state, during which time Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon merged.

As of today, the fire has caused thousands of evacuations, destroyed hundreds of structures and was estimated at 303,341 acres and 40% containment as firefighters faced another day of critical fire weather.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday met with Moore and other federal lands and emergency response officials in Washington, DC. According to a news release from the governor’s office, Lujan Grisham requested “additional local consultation and greater consideration before the initiation of prescribed burns on federal lands during New Mexico’s windy season” and also “emphasized the need to ensure that USDA disaster relief programs for New Mexico farmers and ranchers affected by wildfires fully cover related costs and losses.”

The governor also met with US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to reiterate her request that FEMA approve all outstanding federal assistance requests for New Mexico. Last week, the governor requested the federal government cover 100% of the cost of the wildfire.

In response to the announced pause on prescribed burns, the governor said in a statement she was “glad” to hear that “following my conversation with US Department of Agriculture and Forest Service leadership earlier today, the Forest Service will implement a 90-day pause and review of prescribed burns on federal lands. While we’re clear about the long-term importance of carefully studied and well-managed prescribed burns as tools to improve forest management, it is critical that federal agencies update and modernize these practices in response to a changing climate, as what used to be considered extreme conditions are now much more common—the situation unfolding in New Mexico right now demonstrates without a doubt the grave consequences of neglecting to do so.”

US Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-NM, also issued a response Friday to the announcement of the pause on prescribed burns, saying in both phone calls and letters she has been pushing Moore “to investigate the (Las Dispensas) prescribed burn fire that later became the Hermit’s Peak wildfire to examine their protocols. This announcement to pause prescribed burns this fire season is a good first step. We don’t want any other communities to suffer the fate of those in New Mexico.”

The Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation last week introduced legislation aimed at compensating victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. The Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to design and administer a program for fully compensating those who suffered personal injury, property losses, business and financial losses resulting from the Hermit’s Peak Fire, and was modeled, US Sen. Ben Ray Luján told SFR, on the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, sponsored by the late US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, in the wake of the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, which, like Hermits Peak, grew from a prescribed burn.

The US Forest Service yesterday also closed the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests until at least July 18, as well as portions the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands. Santa Fe County followed suit today and announced the closures of several county trails: Arroyo del la Piedra Open Space, Little Tesuque Creek Open Space, Rio en Medio Open Space and Talaya Hill Open Space.

County officials held a meeting with residents earlier this week advising them to be prepared for the possibility of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire spreading to Santa Fe County.

Moore noted in his statement today the Forest Service needs to increase its fuels treatments—which include using prescribed burns—by up to four times current levels in the West, as detailed in the June report “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” details some of the devastating impacts from recent wildfires to both human life and structures.

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