The U.S. Forest Service revealed Monday the agency caused a New Mexico wildfire in the spring of last year that burned across 60 square miles and almost reached Los Alamos.
The Cerro Pelado fire, which burned in April 2022 under dry and windy conditions, threatened the city of nearly 20,000 people and forced the evacuation of nearby schools before firefighters were able to get the blaze under control. A nearby national security lab also faced flames “where assessing apocalyptic threats is a specialty and wildland fire is a beguiling equation,” according to the Associated Press.
A Monday report from the U.S. Forest Services concluded the federal agency was to blame over a prescribed burn that officials failed to fully extinguish.
U.S. Forest Service Southwestern Regional Forester Michiko Martin said in a press release the fire “was caused by a holdover fire from the Pino West Piles Prescribed Fire.”
“A holdover fire is a fire that smolders undetectably,” Martin said. “In this case, despite being covered by wet snow, this holdover fire remained dormant for [a] considerable time with no visible sign of smoke or heat.”
Last year’s wildfire was not the first time an investigation found the Forest Service culpable in runaway flames. Last year, the forest agency claimed responsibility for a pair of wildfires that merged into the largest blaze in New Mexico state history since tracking began in 1990. The Calf Canyon Fire torched at least 330 homes and displaced thousands across 312,000 acres, according to The New York Times.
The fire, which burned at the same time as the Cerro Pelado, was also caused by a prescribed burn that officials failed to put out.
Veteran Forester Joe Reddan has warned about the overreliance on prescribed burns to manage overgrown forests for decades. Reddan, who now runs his own forestry consulting firm, said the kind of slash pile burning used in the Santa Fe National Forest is a method that works “but requires diligence in monitoring.”
“You have to check those piles every day for heat,” Reddan told The Federalist. It’s the same reason campers are encouraged to stir campfire coals with water to ensure no hot ashes are left over underneath. The Santa Fe National Forest, however, apparently missed the holdover flames that burned down about 380,000 acres, or “half the state of Rhode Island,” between the Cerro Pelado Fire and the infamous Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in 2022.
Martin said the fires led the service to implement a 90-day pause on prescribed burns as federal officials reviewed incumbent protocols.
“The Southwestern Region, including the Santa Fe National Forest, has since implemented all recommendations from the ‘National Prescribed Fire Program Review,'” Martin said. “Specific to the Southwestern Region, firefighters now monitor pile burns using handheld thermal devices and drones that can detect whether heat is present.”
New Mexico Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham blasted the Forest Service for federal officials’ repeated negligence in burning down the state.
“I am – again – outraged over the U.S. Forest Service’s negligence that caused this destruction,” Grisham said in a press release. “The Forest Service must abandon their business-as-usual approach to prescribed burns and forest management in our state. I am relieved to hear that the Forest Service will now use technology to prevent this from occurring in the future. We will continue to hold the federal government accountable for each of the disastrous fires they caused in our state last summer.”