NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The U.S. Forest Service released an 85-page review detailing what went wrong in the prescribed burn that later became the Hermits Peak wildfire. The post-fire investigation revealed that “the implementation was occurring under much drier conditions than were recognized.”
The Hermits Peak Fire started on April 6 with a test fire in the Las Dispensas area. According to a timeline in the review, a burn boss determined that a test-fire the morning of April 6 was successful. Crews then begin igniting the prescribed burn. However, four hours later the fire was declared a wildfire.
Within a few weeks, the fire forced thousands to flee the area and burned more than 400 homes.
The report, along with giving a timeline of the day, identified the missteps in the months leading up to the burn. The burn was planned years prior. The report cites the government shutdown in 2018, then the pandemic for it being three years behind schedule. Over that time, the drought had worsened and there were warmer than average temperatures. It also cited that the snowpack leading into 2022 was very low.
According to the report, all those things were not properly re-calculated in the months and weeks leading to the burn. Also, the change in fuel load is not recognized, with some areas very prone to high-intensity fires.
In the days before the fire, the weather data used was not from the weather stations closest to the burn area. The weather station they should have used was offline because of a lack of maintenance.
It was also windy that day for most of the state. Many have asked why would they burn? Investigators noted there was no red flag warning for the area that day. However, they did note very low humidity levels were recorded by on-site crews the day before.
There are a lot of other issues raised, including that there were not enough crews on the scene that day and a failure to create key firelines if the fire were to escape. One other thing of note was the timing of the fire which didn’t come during the typically prescribed burn season. They note that is in part because of the recovery plan for the Mexican spotted owl. They have to work around breeding season in owl habitat.
In a release, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said the review was necessary in order to “understand how this tragic event unfolded.” He also added: “Wildfire mitigation, wildland firefighting, and many other land management activities we perform are inherently dangerous. When that work does not go as planned, it is imperative that we learn from those experiences.”
The Calf Canyon Fire started on April 19. On April 23, officials announced that the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires had been combined. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is now more than 341,000 acres and 72% contained. It has also turned into New Mexico’s largest wildfire in state history.
The report also listed some findings that could have led to a different outcome:
- Ensure that Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWs) are properly maintained and operational, in order to monitor trends in Fire Danger indices.
- More accurate real-time weather observations could have improved situational awareness.
- Recognition of increased fine fuel loadings from canopy-opening thinning (fine fuels) and 2021 monsoons and from fireline preparation (heavy fuels) contributed to higher fire intensities, torching, spotting, and higher resistance-to-control.
- Low foliar fuel moistures facilitated the transition from surface fire to torching and spotting outside the unit boundaries. Needed context to highlight fuel moisture level concerns.
- Underestimated fire potential leading up to the prescribed fire. ERC (Energy Release Component) was mentioned in Element 9 of the prescribed fire plan to be monitored, but needed context todescribe how this NFDRS element would be used.
- Underestimation of minimum holding and contingency resources.
- Last year’s monsoonal moisture (2021), and late season (winter/spring 2022) snowpack and moisture, did little to ameliorate the magnitude and spatial extent of the ongoing drought.