Forest Service: Calf Canyon Fire Cause Determined

Updated: Investigators say a pile burn holdover from January started the blaze

Cover Story Smoke from the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire billows over the mountains near Tres Ritos on May 14, 2022. (Daniel Brown)

The US Forest Service announced today a pile burn holdover from January caused the Calf Canyon Fire on the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest.

According to fire investigators, the pile burn remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April. A holdover—also known as sleeper fire—is a fire that “remains dormant for a considerable time,” according to a news release announcing the cause.

Updated: In a response to the announcement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released a statement saying: “The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service—an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands—is unfathomable.”

Announcing the cause of the Calf Canyon Fire, she said, is “a first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility for the largest wildfire in state history, which has destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced tens of thousands of New Mexicans, and cost the state and local governments millions of dollars. I appreciate the US Forest Service assuming responsibility for the federal actions that caused this terrible crisis.”

The Calf Canyon Fire first emerged on April 9, when smoke was reported from the vicinity of the Gallinas Canyon Wildland Urban Interface pile burn, which had concluded on January 29, and crews responded. Crews lined the 1.5-acre Calf Canyon Fire and continued to monitor the fire over the next couple of days to ensure there were no signs of heat or flames near the edge.

Ten days later, on April 19, the Calf Canyon Fire reignited and escaped containment lines. New Mexico’s April 22 wind event created significant fire spread, and the Calf Canyon Fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which was caused by an escaped prescribed burn.

“The Santa Fe National Forest is 100% focused on suppressing these fires with the support of the Type 1 incident management teams who are fully prepared to manage complex, all-risk situations,” SFNF Supervisor Debbie Cress said in a statement. “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.”

As of May 27, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire was reported at 312,230 acres and 47% containment. Fire officials at a May 26 community briefing said they anticipated growth and smoke over the holiday weekend, as critical fire weather returns to the state.

“With the hotter and dryer weather, you can anticipate you’re going to see more smoke on the fire,” Jayson Coil, one of the fire’s operations section chief said during last night’s virtual community meeting. “We welcome that because it helps us to identify the areas there there could be some growth and it allows us to suppress them. If there is anything that gets out of our lines…I’ll come in here and we’ll do an update to make sure you guys know what’s going on.” The coming weather, Coil said, will help firefighters “test” the containment lines. “We don’t feel really good about our lines until they’ve had one of those tests,” he said, “because we know that the fire that looks like it’s parked under conditions that are mild, may not look the same under conditions that are extreme. So right now we welcome those extreme conditions because we want to see where we need to take action.”

US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a 90-day pause on all prescribed burns on May 20.

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