U.S. Forest Service Started the Most Destructive Fire in New Mexico History

(p. A10) MORA, N.M. — It started small, with a team of federal employees using drip torches to ignite a prescribed burn in the Santa Fe National Forest, aimed at thinning out dense pine woodlands.

But as April [2022] winds howled across the mountains of brittle-dry northern New Mexico, driving the fire over its boundaries and soon into the path of another out-of-control prescribed burn, it grew to become one of the U.S. Forest Service’s most destructive mistakes in decades.

The resulting merger of those two burns, called the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak blaze, now ranks as the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history. Still burning in a zone of more than 341,000 acres — larger than the city of Los Angeles — the fire has destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands in a region where Hispanic villagers settled centuries ago.

The painful losses have created a backlash against the Forest Service and provided a pivotal test case for how the authorities react when a prescribed burn goes badly wrong.

“I hope those responsible for this catastrophic failure are not sleeping at night,” said Meg Sandoval, 65, whose family settled in the region in the 1840s. She is now living out of a pickup camper shell after her home in Tierra Monte was destroyed by the fire.

“They ruined the lives of thousands of people,” she said.

. . .

. . . like many of her constituents, Ms. Leger Fernández said she was furious to learn that the Forest Service had started both blazes. “How could you make the same mistake twice in the same neighborhood?” she asked.

. . .

Patrick Dearen wrote a book about the Pecos River, whose headwaters are threatened by the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak fire. He noted that in the 1890s, the forest around the river that is now designated as national forest was made up mostly of “old burns,” as well as meadows, open parks and barren peaks.

An inventory in 1911 showed that a typical acre of ponderosa pine habitat had 50 to 60 trees. By the end of the 20th century, Mr. Dearen said, after a long national policy of suppressing natural fires, that had skyrocketed to 1,089 trees per acre.

“Nature had done its job well, but no one recognized it,” Mr. Dearen said. Still, if the government is going to assume nature’s role of thinning out forests, it needs to own up to its mistakes, he said.

“If an individual goes out and starts a fire on purpose and it gets away, he’s probably going to go to jail,” he said. “The federal government needs to assume responsibility to the people.”

For the full story, see:

Simon Romero. “Thousands Lost Everything In Fire Set by Forest Service.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 24, 2022, and has the title “The Government Set a Colossal Wildfire. What Are Victims Owed?”)

The book by Dearen mentioned above is:

Dearen, Patrick. Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

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