Devastating Hermit’s Peak Wildfire Ravages New Mexico, Becomes Largest and Most Destructive in State’s History
On April 6, 2022, the Forest Service ignited a “broadcast burn” in the Santa Fe National Forest – a burn that is supposed to be designed to mimic low-intensity fire, help thin the forest in New Mexico, and promote forest and watershed health. Instead, dry and windy conditions coupled with very low humidity caused this “prescribed burn” to quickly get out of control, and it was officially recharacterized as a wildfire later that day. Now more than 300,000 acres have been devastated and around 200 homes destroyed by the Hermit’s Peak wildfire, and it is still burning.
Timeline of Events
The Hermit’s Peak Fire was lit by the U.S. Forest Service on April 6, 2022, as a prescribed fire in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. Prior plans to start this fire were canceled numerous times due to unfavorable conditions. As April – the last month of the September to May prescribed burn season – started, the U.S. Forest Service notified the public that it “would be looking for optimal windows throughout the month of April to continue implementation” of its previously delayed Las Dispensas prescribed burn plan. During the two days before the wildfire was ignited – on April 4 and 5 – there were “red-flag warnings” issued by the National Weather Service due to the danger of fires spreading out of control. These warnings are designed specifically to provide land management agencies with warning of hazardous fire weather conditions and are issued based on the most hazardous weather associated with the largest 10 percent of fires.
On the morning of April 6, the forecast called for extremely dry conditions, relative humidity below 10%, and sustained winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour, with gusts up to 25 miles per hour. Despite the unfavorable conditions that day and over the two days before, the U.S. Forest Service chose to light the fire anyway, with catastrophic results. The wind gusts, low humidity, and dry conditions caused the fire to quickly become out of control and begin its rapid spread beyond the U.S. Forest Service’s planned boundaries.
On April 23, the Hermit’s Peak fire merged with the nearby Calf Canyon fire, which reportedly started on April 19. This fire is now the largest wildfire in state history, with more than 2,000 emergency workers fighting the blaze.
Mandatory evacuations have been put in place in San Miguel County, Mora County, Taos County, Colfax County, and Sandoval County. An unknown number of counties could further be required to evacuate as the fire grows and changes directions.
Prescribed Burns – What They Are and Why They Happen
A prescribed burn is a fire set intentionally for forest management, farming, or prairie restoration. They are most commonly set to manage forests or grasslands. Ironically, it is supposed to be one of the best ways to manage the intensity of wildfires arising from natural causes, accidental lighting, arson, or other human causes. It does this by reducing the fuels that would otherwise make a fire grow stronger and spread wider.
With ever-changing climate conditions and longer, drier periods dominating the seasons, wildfire researchers contend the forests are increasingly susceptible to catastrophic wildfires, and prevention is necessary to avoid more disasters in the future. Yet, these very prescribed fires can quickly become man-made disasters when not properly planned and implemented.
Fire Management Plans – also referred to as burn plans – must be properly designed, completed, and followed before any prescribed fires are permitted. These plans identify the safest conditions to burn unwanted forest debris, trees, and other plants to achieve the desired results. These plans consider factors such as temperature, humidity, wind, vegetation, moisture, and smoke dispersal conditions. The U.S. Forest Service says the type of burn conducted on April 6 would be done most likely “only in the fall, following the rainy season in July and August.” Instead, the U.S. Forest Service moved forward to complete the burn-in April – during a La Nina cycle weather pattern when much of New Mexico was classified as experiencing “severe drought” or “extreme drought” by the United States Drought Monitor.
Who is Responsible for the Hermit’s Peak Wildfire?
The prescribed burn ignited on April 6 by the U.S. Forest Service quickly grew out of control and instead became the very thing the U.S. Forest Service aimed to prevent: a devastating and horrific wildfire, robbing thousands of their homes and property. A U.S. Forest Service District Ranger publicly announced on April 11 that the prescribed burn it started was the cause of the Hermit’s Peak Wildfire. “We take full responsibility,” he said. State and local leaders have called upon the U.S. Forest Service to suspend prescribed burns – particularly in the wake of the devastating Hermit’s Peak wildfire. “There will be no prescribed burning in New Mexico. That’s been made very clear to our partners,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stated earlier this month. “We’re done.”
The governor also declared the U.S. Forest Service negligent for moving forward with the prescribed burn given the weather conditions in the area. New Mexico State Forestry spokesperson Wendy Rogers said the U.S. Forest Service did not provide a copy of the burn plan to the state agency. A spokesperson for San Miguel County, which is where the burn took place, also said the county did not receive a burn plan in advance.
Though trying to walk back its earlier acceptance of “full responsibility,” and still refusing to release its burn plan, the U.S. Forest Service is at least listening to demands that it suspend its burning activities. On May 20, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a pause of prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands, stating they will “conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.” Unfortunately, this review is coming too late for the several thousand people forced to flee and the hundreds of thousands of acres left still burning.
As the Hermit’s Peak wildfire grows, many are recalling the lessons learned from the Cerro Grande Fire, a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, New Mexico in May of 2000. The spring and early summer months bring windy and hazardous conditions that feed any size of the fire. The windy conditions had that blaze growing out of control in no time, burning about 43,000 acres and causing $1 billion in damage in New Mexico. Researchers strongly suggested in the aftermath of the Cerro Grande fire to limit prescribed burns in the Southwest to the very early spring or the late fall and to carefully plan and implement such fires only during safe conditions. It seems as though no one heeded the warning.
Now residents of New Mexico are living through a second prescribed burn nightmare 20 years later, with the total cost of the damage still untold. Property loss can often be more than the value of a home, vehicle, or other property. It can be sentimental and irreplaceable. It can damage land and property for generations, pollute the water, and result in dangerous mudslides. Wildfires can damage the entire economy of a burned area. Tragically, some affected by wildfires lose even more, with wildfires causing catastrophic injuries or even death. Anyone affected by the Hermit’s Peak wildfire or other wildfire caused by a prescribed burn is encouraged to speak to an experienced wildfire lawyer at Lovell, Lovell, Isern & Farabaugh, L.L.P. for a free and confidential consultation. We are actively investigating the Hermit’s Peak wildfire, and monitoring the government’s response. We’re ready to fight to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.